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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!