England finally broke their losing streak against South Africa at Newlands.

The first two matches of the series were fast paced games at altitude. This game was at sea level and played in wet weather. As a result, the match showed a different side of both teams tactically. In this article I will explore the close quarter work of both teams in particular. Combined with England’s better discipline, this is the main reason for the change in result. My apologies that I wasn’t able to write anything on the second test and this article is also delayed. Unfortunately, life gets in the way of community journalism at times!

South Africa’s poor close quarter work

The Springbok forwards only carried 46 times in a wet weather game. They were slow to organise into their attacking shape. Runners off 9 were often poorly supported, unlike earlier in the series.

Here we see a carry from Pieter-Steph Du Toit (7) supported only by Wilco Louw (18). England have 4 forwards ready to meet him, and he ends up isolated and turned over following good work from Chris Robshaw (6).

In another example of poor carrying off 9, Steven Kitsoff (16) takes a ball as part of a 3-pod. He is standing still and England rush up to take him behind the gain line. The resulting ruck takes over 7 seconds, and the following kick is then charged down. England win a penalty and move 5 points clear. A better exit through a more dynamic carry would have avoided the whole situation.

South Africa picked Pieter-Steph Du Toit and Siya Kolisi on the flanks. Neither are true open sides. As a result, there was extra pressure on England’s lineout, but less on the breakdown. Was this an admission that South Africa have struggled to pressure England in this area? Or a more positive attempt to attack England through adding a lineout option and carrier? As an adaption to this selection, the Springboks tried to counter-ruck a lot, led by Kolisi, instead of jackalling. This went ok, but South Africa would have liked to threaten England’s ball security more than they were ultimately able to.

England’s excellent close quarter work

Tom Curry (7) is shown here making a classic breakdown turnover. Himself and Chris Robshaw (who can be seen in the picture shouting “holding sir?“) were licensed to disrupt Springbok rucks. Other players were told only to compete if they saw a clear chance, and instead to look to get back in the defensive line. Joe Marler got a steal of his own, and in general, England did well at defensive rucks.

England's tactics

The picture shows Kyle Sinkler (3) drawing Tendai Mtawerira (1) and popping the ball to Maro Itoje to create a clean break. England have some good ball handling forwards. In this game, they were able to add variety to their carries and keep defenders guessing.

As seen in the picture, England positioned Sinkler (3) as the third guard at a lot of rucks. He has very good acceleration and agility for a big man. Sinkler rushed up and was able to force carriers back inside. Maro Itoje (5) was often the second guard, again seen here. Itoje topped England’s tackling stats with 15. Chris Robshaw (6) frequently stood at first guard like in the picture. He was tasked with pressuring the breakdown. This tactic originated with Racing 92 and France, who used it to nullify Leinster and Ireland’s close carrying off 9.

England’s tactics

England did employ their new 3-1-2 pattern, which will be explained in a forthcoming article. However, most of the time the 3-pod simply took the ball up. The pack overall had a nice balance of carrying. Five players made 7 or 8 carries each, with Joe Marler also chipping in with 4. Tom Curry only carried twice, but Nathan Hughes managed 13. In return, Curry did a lot of Hughes’ defensive work to free him up. Everyone passed the ball and nobody was too predictable.

Set Piece draw

England were able to pressure the South African lineout and scrum. In the lineout, Maro Itoje was often the man to compete for England. The picture shows him getting a steal early on.

South Africa, in turn, used Pieter-Steph Du Toit to attack the English lineout. The picture shows an English throw, although the steal is so clean that without seeing the hooker, it looks like Springbok ball. Both teams also defended lineout mauls very well.

This picture shows Tom Curry positioned at 9 from a defensive lineout. This tactic allowed him to come across and hit the big South African 12, Andre Esterhuizen, rather than allow him to target Danny Cipriani.

Kicking strategies

In the first 12 minutes, South Africa had already kicked to Jonny May 7 times, not including kickoffs. May is right footed and not a great kicker. South Africa hoped to gain ground by forcing a bad return kick from him. However, their kicks were often too long, and May dealt with them comfortably.

England, in general, kicked long and chased in an organised line, preventing the counterattack from the dangerous runners in South Africa’s back three. England identified that this back three are all inexperienced. None of them is a particularly accomplished kicker. England also box kicked very well, both for territory and to contest.

Mike Brown has defended at 15 in the backfield all series, swapping with Elliot Daly in attack. This flexibility was part of the justification for selecting him. The picture also shows England’s backs are all in position to counter towards the open side. South Africa have not learned their lesson from the first test when Jonny May scored from an open side counter. I predict South Africa will concede counterattack tries from kicks in the upcoming games with Australia and New Zealand. Wouldn’t you bet on the All Blacks to cause problems if they are faced with this scenario instead of England?

SA attack getting narrower, England still wide

England’s wide defence coped better and better as the tour went on. The picture shows that although Aphiwe Dyantyi (11) has the ball in space, there is nowhere for him to go. England’s spacing is perfect.

South African change in tactics

As the tour went on, South Africa used their centres more and their wingers less. In the first test, the wings carried 19 times for 151 meters, while the centres managed 15 carries for 55 meters. Over the last 2 tests, the Springbok wingers averaged 10 carries for 48 meters, while their centres averaged 18 carries for 118 meters. This has resulted in more defending for the England centres. In the last test, Henry Slade and Owen Farrell both missed 4 tackles, while Slade made 6 and Farrell only made 4. Clearly Rassie Erasmus decided this was the area to target, rather than the wide defence in the first test.

England’s tactics

In contrast, England still used their wingers far more than their centres in attack. Over the three tests, the English centres managed only 25 carries for 49 meters in total. The wingers made a huge 61 carries for 471 meters, grabbing 5 tries. I suspect Australia and New Zealand will target the Boks here too.

This picture shows a pattern Wasps use a lot, where the 12 is part of a 2-pod and takes the ball directly from the ruck. Danny Cipriani loops around and back, taking a pullback from his 12, in this case Owen Farrell. Cipriani can draw a third defender and release his fullback, coming into the line. In this case that’s Elliot Daly, who is able to go through the space in the 13 channel that S’bu Nkosi vacates to cover Cipriani.

The attack wasn’t perfect though. This picture shows England going wide from turnover ball. In the circle we see an intelligent blocking line from Tom Curry leaves Danny Cipriani with a 4v2 and 30 meters of space to attack. He can also kick into the area highlighted, which would cause a lot of problems given the position of fullback Warrick Gelant. Cipriani chooses the kicking option but doesn’t execute it well, letting South Africa off the hook. Later in the game, a similar scenario leads to Jonny May’s try, as Cipriani executes his kick much better.

England showed nice variety and an evolving attack structure to continue to expose Springbok weaknesses out wide. South Africa, by contrast, had to shift their focus to a different area.

Conclusions

England showed much-improved discipline. I believe this was a result of their superior close quarter work on both sides of the ball. They were able to keep the pressure on South Africa. In turn, the Springboks gave away penalties. England kicked very well to control territory while they were ahead. Because they were under less pressure, England were able to maintain their discipline and ultimately this made the difference. I don’t think it a coincidence that in all England’s losses this year, the penalty count against them was over 10. In all the wins, the penalty count was 10 or less.

Going forward, England have shown progress in addressing their weaknesses. The wide defence is much better. Eddie Jones and Scott Wisemantel introduced a new 3-1-2 attack structure and rucks are now more secure. The losing streak is over, the rested players will return and England will look forward to the November rematch at Twickenham.

South Africa showed great resilience with two comeback wins. They have some amazing players despite missing World XV candidates Eben Etzebeth and Malcolm Marx through injury. South Africa are much improved, especially with the return of their overseas stars. However, they are a new team and there are clear structural weaknesses that Australia and New Zealand will target. They have not yet shown how they will adapt to what England exposed in their game.

Author: Daniel Pugsley

I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I play for Abu Dhabi Harlequins 3rds and coach the U6s where my daughter plays. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I am new to sports writing, but why should the Quins lads be the only ones to suffer my ramblings!

4 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent article as always Dan, in particular about the identifying of the new pattern! Can tell England have moved away from their more traditional 2 man pods closer to the ruck. Thats a wise choice in my opinion due to the Forward concentration there. Opting to run them out wide for ball retention in combo with the backs is definitely a far better option.

    I do like what Wisemantel has brought to the party and I pray we keep him. We need someone to challenge the status quo of Jones managing the attack. Daly’s try in the 1st test where May breaks inside the 13 channel from Fords screen pass screams we’re looking to target the transition zone more. Rather than automatically going wide in the future. A great way to deal with those meddlesome Rush 13 Defences!

    One thing to ask though. With the 3-1-2. Do you reckon it can lead to our attack being confusing? With the Ford Farrell axis we always maintained the ability to use the 20 metre blind, which I suppose we still do if we go wide and the 3 pod is one out on the 20 metre line. But this does seem to be a pattern geared for predominant openside attack, and once the attack has gone fully wide to the “2 Pod”. The 3 Pod moving over will be paramount for play off 9, unless they run the Blindside. I’m just imagining the make up of these pods can’t be set in stone, and will be flexible due to the non uniformity of this shape. The 2 pod converting to the 3 on the return phase, 1 moving into the 3, the prior 3 splitting into the 1-2. Or you can have the two pod in the ruck and the 1 being joined by two men from the prior 3 pod to form the new one. Its pretty structured and whilst that has its merits, need to make sure that doesn’t become confusing!

    • Thanks Conor! I have an article out soon that goes into the 3-1-2 in a lot more detail. I agree it’s not really a system that lends itself to being 2 sided and that was a big part of England’s threat before. I think England may reorganise so there is a 2 pod on the blind side and a 3-1 shape on the open. I saw South Africa run a pattern like this in the build-up to Jesse Kriel’s try. The 3 pod spearheaded by Kitsoff interested our narrow D and he pulled back to Jantjies just before contact. Jantjies passed to Mostert who won the collision with our edge defender, and the 3-pod resourced the ruck. I didn’t spot it from England but I think that’s the obvious solution, as you have a blind 2-pod with the blind winger and probably at least one more back. I agree with you about Wisemantel, it’s hard to know how much of this has come directly from him given the short time frame, but the attack has looked far better while he has been involved.

  2. Improvements have been made in structure! My question which of the different selections that have been made in selection will be more permanent going forward? Who will be tighthead prop? Who will be fullback? After Liam Williams comments about Goode still not sure why he does not come in? Seems to fit the new system pretty well! Who will be hooker? What about who will be at 6? Even scrumhalf and Flyhalf? Outside Center? Would love to hear your thoughts?

    • Hi John, in answer to your question here are my predictions: Sinkler at tighthead, the Daly experiment will continue but with Nowell or possibly Ashton instead of Brown and Hartley will start if fit. Goode is a cracking player but I don’t think Jones will pick him. 10 will be Ford although I’d like to see Cipriani against at least one of the big teams. Scrum half Youngs as they are changing system and I think they want the Tigers halves to get used to it. 6 is up in the air, perhaps Michael Rhodes will get a run? 13 will be Joseph again if he’s fit, Slade if not. Not necessarily my picks but the team I’d expect to see

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