To all Springbok fans out there, please note that I don’t take enjoyment in this article.

I am currently writing a series on the England attack before the Six Nations and as such have been a little sparse with other articles. But after seeing this game I had to vent my feelings.

A strong Springbok side is needed for World Rugby. And what I saw in that game, was an amalgamation of errors, lack of effort, and a total disregard for any tactical nous.

This is not to take anything away from Ireland. Ireland were immaculate in this game. They had a very astute, and very effective gameplan, and in my opinion, delivered the complete performance. A performance which comes along once every two or three years. A game where one side is so intensely dominant, in attack, in defence, in game management, that the other team’s supporters need their share of beer. Ireland. Well done.

As you can imagine, there are some issues that the Boks need to sort out. It has been a very topsy-turvy year for them. They got hammered in Albany, but then raised their physicality and momentum, and targeted the All Blacks in their final game of the Championship. Which they were very unlucky not to have won.

They proved with their 1-3-3-1 formation, hard South African running, effective kicking and plenty of fire, that they could take it to the best. But what we saw, was a one-off. After this performance against Ireland, I’m more inclined to believe that the Boks raised their game against the All Blacks and that what we saw against Ireland is their current standard.

The classic 1331 setup

Springbok Attack

The Springbok attack in this game showed a complete and total lack of ANY clear decision-making in their line up. This was a game that needed the 8/10/12 to come in and grab it by the scruff of the neck. It needed the forwards to get fired up with controlled aggression. What we saw was anything but.

There was a very astute article on this site written with the need for Handre Pollard to be back in the team at 12. A view I agree on. But God he is needed more than I realised.

Elton Jantjies was near invisible in this game. It’s not all down to him, but he was hardly in this game. Pollard was more of an asset in this game than Jantjies. There was a little more variation in their play when he came on. But it led nowhere as the opportunities died out with basic unforced errors from the rest of the team.

Handré Pollard is needed more than ever. By David Roberts from London, via Wiki Commons
Handré Pollard is needed more than ever.
By David Roberts from London, via Wiki Commons

The Springbok plan was simple and potentially could’ve worked. But, the personnel for it were not right, especially when faced with Ireland’s superb defence.

Variation required?

As we know the Springboks use the 1-3-3-1 system. A multi-phase system across the park that enables them to retain possession, keep a structure and provide a stable platform for their backs to work around. But they follow it religiously. Absolutely. Religiously.

The Springboks played off 9 to the point that, aside from the set piece, I didn’t notice Jantjies. Their attacking plan was based on a territorial one. This is Alister Coetzee to a tee, but it was never going to work with the 1-3-3-1 structure against the way the Irish defend.

The Irish maintain a back three in the backfield. The rest of their defensive line is quite short. It is the rush defence, that rushes up, often catching the play behind the gain line, or drifts if the ball gets outside the 13 channel fulcrum, in which the back 3 will then start to move up to plug the outside channels from the overlap.

Countering the Irish D

The Springbok strategy to counter this, was as follows:

Say we have moved wide and the ball is set up on the 20-metre line, ready in the 1-3-3-1 system with the 3-3-1 to the openside.

The Boks played off 9 by using the 1st 3-pod as a target. The pod was in the 10 position; however, because they didn’t run onto the ball with any aggression or apparent desire they were often caught behind the gain line. This is where a traditional Irish defence targets the hardest. And in this game it gave momentum to this defence.

But here is the kicker. The Irish defence were totally dominant at the hit on the 1st 3-pod and the breakdown. Not only did they catch them behind the gain line, allowing them to rush on the next phase, they were also able to number up from the blind to the open very well if the overlap was on. It has to be said that this was crucial. Once the ball was out, Cronje would move the ball to the 2nd 3-pod. This pod then ran into a solid wall of defenders due to the slow ball of the prior phase, allowing the Irish to renumber. Cronje would then attempt a kick to the backfield or launch a box kick, that unfortunately was nowhere near as accurate or effective as the Irish equivalent. This was the strategy they had been given by AC.

Coach Coetzee Photo by Dave Rogers - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images
Coach Coetzee
Photo by Dave Rogers – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images

What the Boks were attempting was first to bring up the back three and exploit space in the backfield, with Cronje then able to kick to touch. Second, they wanted to compete at the lineout with their very experienced lineout men and generally apply the squeeze to the Irish team. However, this was totally nullified by the Irish defence, and they had no answer to it. The reason why is shown below.

Reasoning

The 1st phase to the 1st 3-pod did not get over the gain line as it was the only option that they had. Take a moment to consider that statement. It was the ONLY option. Go back and have a look if you get the chance.

Jantjies was not behind the pod offering an alternative screen pass option. There was no blind winger coming in for the inside pass. The carriers had the ball tucked up under their jumpers. There was no 13 or crash option outside the 3-pod. The Irish defence only had to look up and see the 3-pod with the ball being passed to them, and they knew from the movement of other players that they didn’t need to worry about anything else. They went up and dutifully caught the Boks behind the line.

Cue the next phase (though even this broke down eventually). The Irish were able to renumber due to the breakdown.

The ball got fired out to the 2nd 3-pod. Due to the slow ball of the prior phase, the defensive line was again able to rush up and catch the pod behind the gain line. Again, there were no options behind or around this pod so the defence again could focus on them. Not only this, because Elton was not the first receiver, the Boks hardly had the passing range to get the ball wide to the edge of the defensive line. Thereby not bringing the back three up.

The kick was made and the Irish back three fielded it, allowing Ireland to launch their highly effective kick chase.

Where was Elton?

Where was Elton is the logical question here…

From my perspective, he hardly got himself into the game the way Handre Pollard would and did. The strategy as detailed above did have modifications, but again, they were all based on kicking for territory and kick chase. That’s all they had. The lack of tactical nous to combat the Irish rush defence was abysmal.

They did try to vary it, but failures all resulted from the ineffectiveness of the 1st 3-pod.

After the 1st 3-pod had gone into touch, the Boks tried to get Jantjies in at 1st receiver so that the 3-pod/backline could stand further out wide. This would mean a pass from Jantjies would be able to cut out more defenders in the defensive line and therefore get to the edge of the line. This would bring the back three up and a kick to touch from Cronje would be far more effective as the back three would not be there to field it.

However, two things stopped this:

  1. The defensive line were still able to come up fast, as the 1st 3-pod had done nothing to gain any sort of momentum or check the Irish line speed.
  2. Elton Jantjies could be targeted. The Irish defence rushed him mercilessly.

He had a nice flat backline off him outside the 3-pod, yet the line was so quickly upon him that he didn’t want to risk the pass. He panicked and kicked. This happened multiple times.

He kicked, but he kicked before the ball had been passed to the 2nd 3-pod, and before the Bok line even had a chance at bringing the back three up. Therefore possession was given up far, far too cheaply.

One dimensional

The whole attack was one dimensional. The 1-3-3-1 depends on gain line success just to move the ball between the pods, let alone wide, without being harassed by a rush defence. With no options around the 1st pod, the Irish knew exactly what was coming. Every time. They simply numbered up well and stopped all ball-in-hand attacks on 1st phase. Essentially quashing the momentum needed right at the source.

I don’t think I once saw the 1st 3-pod used as a screen pass. A pass behind the pod to 10, who could then pass out to the 2nd 3-pod, where the defence is less constricted. They could have targeted wider, and given the Irish defence something different to deal with, rather than the rush 10 channel they were doing all day, very successfully, on the 1st 3-pod.

To play 2 out and hit the fringes is usually the way to beat a rush defence. Yet the Boks were so set on their structure that they stuck by their launchpad (trucking up the 1st 3-pod) all game. Even though it yielded hardly any results.

Where was the change in approach? Where were the decision makers?

Off 9. The Springbok Way?

The Boks played off 9 too much, and it was not the way to beat the Irish. The Boks repositioning was poor, their awareness of space was not pointed out and exploited by Jantjies, and quite simply, they looked rudderless. With only 1 out of 5 passes being played off 10, compared to the remaining number played off 9, they looked lost.

Ross Cronje is so important to the Springboks. Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung / photosport.co.nz
Ross Cronje is so important to the Springboks.
Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung / photosport.co.nz

A painful example

There was one moment towards the end of the 1st half where the ball had gone two phases right to left across the park. Both times the ball was played off Cronje and the forwards had a very small overlap on the blind. The Irish defence moved from the open to blindside to cover it, leaving glaring holes on the openside of the ruck within 10 metres. Jantjies was standing right behind this, yet there were no players there offering themselves as options. None. There was no communication to switch the play, to not go to the blind but to hit the fringes of the open, as the Irish would not have been able to rush if they had. I would be screaming for Etzebeth to be running down that channel. Instead, the play went blind, and the chance to gain some momentum was lost.

The times they managed to gain some momentum and played off Jantjies without the rush defence, they sent one runner in off him alone without support. Kolisi found this out at the end of the 1st half to his peril. Runners overrunning their decoy lines allowing the drift, alignment being too flat in the face of the rush defence. They just didn’t adapt. And leads me to think they need players like Pollard back in the starting line up urgently.

And the rest…

Then there was the kicking game, handling errors, the list goes on. The Springbok back three were targeted mercilessly in terms of their catching and fielding kicks into space. They are still rookies at this, and the Irish exploited that. By giving possession back cheaply, which they did all game, the Springboks were playing right into the Irish hands, who simply sent the ball back into the air, via the best 9-10 kick chase combination in the world. It was madness.

Ireland Attack

The Irish attack, unfortunately, didn’t get a chance to show off all of their attacking fluency, but they didn’t need to. Their kick-chase was so effective they just kept doing it. They had the Boks on the ground by the throat and by using it they were keeping them there.

The Boks back three/Boks back row often got caught trying to slow the ball down with the accuracy and turnovers generated from these kicks. As such, this resulted in the Irish attack managing to keep building scores. They did this simply from quick ball with their exceptional flankers, and passing down a line that chased after the ball very effectively, forcing the Boks into penalties.

Skosan unfortunately, for all of his attacking talents, was exposed by this. And they will continue to use this part of their game.

Flat attack

They were also very very flat. Which worries me. I love a flat attack. Coach it. Use it. Love it. It gives the defence less time to react, more chance of breaking the line, I love it. The Irish are using it and, if they keep doing it, will be very very good come RWC 2019. Especially with Ringrose on the team.

Joe Schmidt is proving to be the master of innovation. By @OvalDigest, via Wikimedia Commons
Joe Schmidt is proving to be the master of innovation.
By @OvalDigest, via Wikimedia Commons

For all their efficiency, I don’t see many of the Irish backline being game changers, aside from Murray, Sexton, and now Aki. I see them being part of a hard-working, detailed and very effective system. But not exceptionally gifted with pace or picking the right line or sensational footwork. Ringrose is all of those things and I think him at 13, exploiting space created by Aki is one powerful dynamic.

That is it from me! But credit must also go to Ireland in this game. They were able, to an extent, hand it back to the Boks and watch the mistakes roll in. But their composure, discipline and game plan was absolutely spot on and brilliantly executed.

The Boks helped them it must be said, but, the passion, the fans and the players are still there for South African Rugby. What worries me is that the team went into the game against Ireland looking like they’d hardly analysed them, or had any idea how to exploit their weaknesses. Whether that’s ignorance or incompetence, it is down to the management within SA rugby.

Alister Coetzee has surrounded himself with elite level coaches who all have dealt with this before. Brendan Venter himself taught Andy Farrell at Saracens. So the knowledge to beat this system can be found within South African Rugby. If it’s incompetence, the Bok coaches need to fix it and fast. If it’s ignorance, that is unacceptable, especially with the encyclopedia Coetzee has at his back.

Has he lost the dressing room? I don’t know. But with politics and performances, South African Rugby is hurting. And it needs help for the benefit of World Rugby.

Author: Conor Wilson

Recently retired from the Military, Skydiving and rare Steak Enthusiast and Coach and Player of the beautiful game of Rugby.

Joe Schmidt, Will Greenwood and Rod MacQueen are my heroes, and my proudest moment was putting Jason Robinson in for a try at a promotional Rugby day. It was truly beautiful.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Superb as always Conor, I had thought that the Springboks were confused, now it looks like they were just shocked! There is an old military saying that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, the Sprigboks need to learn this fast!

        • As for this one mate, I only see one massive spike since AC took over. And that was the last game against the AB’s of the championship this year. Aside from that game. I didn’t see form. Except against inferior opposition. Australia were rebuilding. At the start, they were awful, and as can be seen from their improvement throughout the championship did a great job. Argentina aren’t what they were in 2015, New Zealand aside from the last game had it all their own way, and France.

          That France series, the team were woeful. We’ll see this weekend. But looking back on it in all sincerity. Aside from that one game I can’t see any great form that suggests they’re top 3. Which needs to be remedied, as they have the players. But the coaching and state of the game needs to be looked at.

          • “I didn’t see form. Except against inferior opposition.”. NZ play that every game. How do you see their form? :-).

            SA will struggle to get top 3 status again whilst they carry a shackle around their employment laws. Once that shackle is removed in a natural cycle, probably 7-10 years away they will be top 1/2 again.

          • I’m not quite certain what you’re asking me? The AB’s are at a point where they are the best team in the world so they have no choice but to play inferior opposition. There’s noone better they can play.

            The Springboks can play against better teams and teams worse than them. Aside from the game against the AB’s where they performed brilliantly, all other games they performed that people were really impressed was the series against the French. And the French were woeful, and inferior opposition.

    • Thanks for the comment Paul! I think they were also. Its just indicative of this Environment that they didn’t seem to have a plan B or C or the brains to come up with a solution on the field. I mean. I couldn’t see them even trying anything different. It defies belief. Unless they are trying to get AC fired by rigidly sticking with his gameplan as a matter of principle to show how bad it is. For the long term welfare and survival of the Boks. Only a guess. But it might be the case.

  2. Hi Conor Thanks for a great game breakdown.

    I agree with on 90% of your points, as a South African it is hard to hear reality. there are some very big questions that need to be asked.
    The Ireland Game had a very similar feel to the Albany game, the team looked completely out of their depth. I put it down to leadership on and off the field.

    On the field Eben should have rallied the guys and said “Listen this is not working, lets go back to basics”:
    1. Throw to the front of the line out, lets keep possession.
    2. Get the ball out quicker from the scrum, reduce penalties.
    3. Lets keep possession and go through the phases.
    4. Shorter passes to reduce errors.
    5. Fewer kicks
    You get the idea, try and build from there. Keeping the ball would have eventually frustrated the Irish. Even if we did not score we would have learned something from the game. Having plays and tactics goes out the window when nothing is working. Then it is time to dare I say it play boring Rugby.

    But we continued to carry on with the same game plan.

    The whole game I saw Rory Best talking to the Ref, asking to look at things. I dont think I saw Eben do it once. As a Captain it is you job to talk with the Ref get them on your side. I have always rated Eben as a player one of our best, but I feel that being Captain has affected the way he plays and not for the better.

    I am not Sure if AC is a National Coach yet, just as some players reach Super Rugby Level and cant make the step up. I feel the same thing with coaches.

    We talk about rugby skills and good decision making not being present with the Bok’s. I watch a lot of School Boy Rugby from all around the World. I see very little difference between the skills from South Africa, England or New Zealand. Even at Under 19 or Junior level the skills are so even. There is freedom and flair from these young raw players.
    Then something happens in the step up to Currie Cup and Super Rugby Level. This freedom is taken away. A good coaches assist athletes in developing to their full potential.

    So for me the problems start well before the Bok’s, the reason Johan Ackermann did so well with the Lions he created a game plan based on the skills of his players, he gave them freedom to play the way they wanted to play.

    But I could write for hours on what I think. I think there may be more pain on the horizon for the Bok’s but it will eventually be sorted out. I will still wear my Green and Gold scream and shout and share my opinion, but have faith that it will be fixed.

    • Thanks for the comment mate.

      I’ll confess I will respectfully disagree about the shorter passes, as that helps the Constricted Irish defensive system. But everything else I’ll agree with 100%.

      I think John Mitchell and Johan Ackermann in charge of the academy and progression structures from the age grade to the Super teams would’ve been a hugely brilliant innovation. As they are for me, the best coaches in South African Rugby, with Rannie Erasmus to develop and bring that game approach to the forefront. I think the NZRU having such a hold over the clubs and the way they play is just a benefit that can’t be underestimated. I would kill for a system in England that prioritises the National performance. But alas. The power and greed of clubs takes over.

  3. Trust me even Pollard would not have made any difference with a rubbish game plan by Allister. Elton and Cronje understand the 1-3-3-1 system very much because the Lions play the same system. You also forget to mention the rubbish 12 who is out of his depth. Elton, Cronje and de Allende made awful decisions but de Allende was worse. As you might understand playing the 1-3-3-1 requires 10 and 12 (mostly) to make good decisions and this was the problem with the.

  4. 15.patrick lambie/andries coetzee
    14.willie le roux/Cournall Skosan
    13.jan serfontein/Francois Venter*
    12.francois steyn/rohan janse van rensburg
    11.jesse kriel/Dillyn Leyds
    10.handre pollard/Elton Jantjies
    9.cobus reinach/Ross Cronje
    8.warren whiteley/Duane Vermeulen
    7.jaco kriel/Jean-Luc du Preez
    6.marcell coetzee/Siya Kolisi
    5.pieter steph du toit/Franco Mostert*
    4.eben etzebeth/Lood de Jager*
    3.Tendai Mtawarira/Wilco Louw
    2.malcolm marx/bismarck du plessis
    1.Coenie Oosthuizen/steven kitshoff

  5. I would love you to write an updated version of this at the end of the November internationals. The Boks have now put away France (yawn) and Italy (tough conditions, so hard to judge, but a good, solid win). With a number of players being out of consideration for the Wales game, the game itself loses some of its sheen.

    There was a little blurb that didn’t stick in the SA press for too long, but I did see it. AC complained that SARU are under heavy financial constraints. The players were made to fly up to the UK in economy class seating, instead of the usual business class. This might explain some rustiness, but it possibly points to deeper problems within the camp. Serfontein chose not to tour with the Boks and instead did a stint of club rugby in France. Have the Boks taken a cut in salary? We don’t know, but there is a definite tiredness and lethargy about them – not to mention a lack of team spirit that seemed evident earlier in the RC and France tour. It really says something when a player in good form, refuses to play for his country, but plays for a club. All is not well in the Bok camp. There are clearly issues dividing the team, with finances possibly playing some kind of role.

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