South Africa v England, what a game! England opens with one of the best 20-minute spells you will ever see. South Africa pull off an astonishing comeback from 3-24 down to lead at halftime.
The Springboks take full control before England hit back and fall only 3 points short. Both teams score 5 tries, both show defensive frailties and both have reason to feel confident next week. You can see highlights here.
In this article, I will examine some of the tactics both teams used, and explore how England are evolving since that chastening defeat at Murrayfield at the start of their losing run.
England attack wide
England showed a willingness to spread the ball wide from the start of this game. This is in stark contrast to the end of the 6 Nations. At the first opportunity, deep in their own 22, England send 5 simple passes from left to right across the back line to release Jonny May and move into the South Africa 22.
A few phases later we see the Springbok defensive line is very compressed, despite outnumbering England. George Ford (10) has the ball and Billy Vunipola (8) cuts back towards Dan Du Preez (7). Vunipola is such a major threat as a carrier that Bongi Mbonambi (2) and Damien De Allende (12) are also attracted. Ford sees the defenders bite and slips the ball behind Vunipola to Owen Farrell (12). Farrell then draws the last defender and releases Mike Brown (11). Brown produces a powerful finish to open England’s account. This try was entirely due Ford exploiting a South African defensive system error. They were bunched too close and did not trust their inside defenders to handle Vunipola coming back on the angle.
Another error leads to the second try for Elliot Daly. This time Lukhanyo Am (13) jumps out of the line. He has anticipated the play he thinks England will make and tries to shut down Ford before Ford can turn to give a pass to Henry Slade (13). Am plays his rugby for the Sharks, who, like many teams, empower the 13 to try and cut off wide attacks at source. Watch the highlights of this fabulous win over the Blues and note Am (13 with a leg bandage) rushing up as the Blues score their first try. He does so again to intercept for one of the Sharks scores. This is a common tactic when outnumbered, and England use it a lot when Jonathan Joseph plays.
When a player rushes up like Am did, the rest of the team must either all go with him or close the gap behind him. This is because the isolated defender can be picked off with a simple 2 v 1 if he doesn’t reach the carrier quickly enough. South Africa have a new coach and new players, and this unfamiliarity led to Am being easily isolated but the gap also remaining open. Jonny May (14) floats behind George Ford (10) while Am is closing down the Leicester fly-half. Ford pops a short ball to his Tigers club mate and May goes through the gap behind Am. Quick hands then send Daly over for his 9th Test try.
A third system error leads to the third England try, this time for Owen Farrell. The Lions flyer Aphiwe Dyantyi (11) anticipates Owen Farrell (12) will get the ball with Mike Brown (11) inside him. He decides to stick to Farrell, leaving Lukhanyo Am inside him to pick up Mike Brown. Dyantyi fails to spot Jonny May (14, out of shot) and leaves a full 15 metres of space unguarded on his outside. The Springboks are not outnumbered, but they do have their spacing wrong. Too many players are defending close to the ruck. George Ford (10) throws a world class pass to hit May without the winger breaking stride. May then draws the fullback, Willie Le Roux, and slips inside to the supporting Owen Farrell for a simple try.
South Africa attack wide too
In the lead up to Faf De Klerk’s opportunistic try, a simple wide pass from the scrum-half to Willie Le Roux (15) cuts out half of England’s pack. Handré Pollard (10) runs a wonderful straight line off Le Roux, initially between Maro Itoje (4) Tom Curry (7) but then fading outside Itoje. This interests Mike Brown (11) and Le Roux perfectly times his pass to S’Busio Nkosi (14), setting the Sharks winger free. Like the Farrell try for England, the defence have their spacing wrong. They are standing too close to each other and too close to the ruck. Despite the defenders outnumbering the attackers, they are still outflanked.
For Nkosi’s first try De Klerk notices an overlap on his right. South Africa are once again set up with the first receiver quite far from the ruck. This was a deliberate ploy all game long to take England’s ruck guards out of the game and slow England’s line speed. De Klerk runs sideways from the base the ruck. He passes to Damien De Allende (12) who pirouettes out of a tackle and slips the ball to Nkosi (14). The winger then outpaces the covering Jamie George (2), chips ahead and after Elliot Daly fails to ground the ball, Nkosi scores to bring South Africa back into the game.
Just before halftime, a South African rolling maul opens up space on England’s left flank. Yet again England’s spacing is wrong. The defence is too bunched up in the midfield. A simple long pass to Willie Le Roux (15) coming in from fullback takes out both Owen Farrell (12) and Henry Slade (13). Le Roux then has a 2v2 opportunity against Mike Brown and Elliot Daly. He runs at Daly’s inside shoulder, outpacing Brown. Daly and Brown both reach him as he is crossing the line to give South Africa the halftime lead. If Daly steps in any earlier, he can stop Le Roux but would leave the winger free for a walk in.
Willie Le Roux made 14 passes in this game, only 5 fewer than his fly-half. The Wasps fullback consistently came into the line as a wide playmaker. South Africa kept giving him an early, deep pass, often cutting out both of their own centres. Le Roux then aimed for the 13 channel, fixing England’s last man and releasing his winger. This is reminiscent of both the way he attacks for Wasps and the way Scotland use Stuart Hogg. It is also what I think England would like to do with Elliot Daly and the reason he has moved to fullback.
South Africa win the kicking battle
The Springboks and England both kicked the ball 17 times out of hand. England tried to exploit the fact that their whole backline (apart from perhaps Jonny May) are highly accomplished kickers. They passed the ball along the line to bring up the South African wingers before kicking in behind them, often employing Elliot Daly to do so. The plan wasn’t particularly successful because Daly kicked too long. Some commentators have highlighted that the ball travels much further at altitude, while England trained at sea level. This was certainly borne out by Daly’s 61-metre penalty kick early on.
England also picked Mike Brown and Jonny May, both excellent high ball kick chasers, and put Ben Spencer on the bench rather than Dan Robson. This seemed to signal an intent to box kick and expose the debutant South African wingers. South Africa nullified this threat by dropping Duane Vermeulen back. This is a fairly common tactic, Sergio Parisse for Italy is a prime example. The big number 8s often win aerial collisions against an onrushing back 3 player and as a result can be more secure than their own back 3.
South Africa’s own kicking was very purposeful. Many of their contestable kicks were slightly too long, possibly by design. The Springboks had extremely quick wingers on both sides to chase, and those players often made a tackle rather than compete for the ball. With quicker forwards like Siya Kolisi following up, they tried to effect a counter ruck and win a turnover or force a mistake. South Africa were also alert to Elliot Daly’s positioning at fullback and were able to find territory through Handré Pollard or Willie Le Roux on several occasions.
South Africa’s lightning ruck speed
Faf De Klerk was a clear man of the match in this game. He was able to regularly get the ball away from South African rucks in under 2 seconds. The hard work of his forwards prevented Tom Curry or Chris Robshaw from slowing Springbok ball and England struggled to realign. This led to a drop in line speed which made the next ruck faster in a positive feedback loop. How was this done?
In this picture, we see a number of good decisions from South Africa. Firstly, Jamie George (circled on the floor) has made a tackle and has moved away to one side of the ruck. Faf De Klerk deliberately changes his line of running to make sure George will impede him, then makes this impediment very obvious. He duly gains a penalty advantage.
This ruck follows two breakdowns in a row which were just over 1 second each. We see Henry Slade (13) calling for help, Owen Farrell (12) unsure whether to assist Slade or guard the ruck and Maro Itoje (4) unsure if he is first guard or second. His decision is complicated by the fact that Nick Isiekwe is being held into the ruck (circled hand on knee). England are clearly scrambling to realign.
We also see two South African forwards over the ball. The carrier, Siya Kolisi, hit the deck at the same time as these players arrived, meaning England’s fetcher, Tom Curry (7) has no chance to slow the ball down. A third player, Wilco Louw (3) is available if needed.
In this picture, we see an example of the intelligence with which South Africa played the referee. RG Snyman makes a tackle on Kyle Sinkler and Duane Vermeulen immediately gets over the ball. Maro Itoje goes in to clear the Number 8 but is impeded by Snyman, who stands up rather than rolling away or staying down. Itoje unsurprisingly fails to clear his man. This should be a penalty for not rolling away, and is much more blatant than the Jamie George example.
The next player in, Nick Isiekwe, does clear Vermeulen, but the South African manages to roll to his right. This leaves the breakdown open for Siya Kolisi. Kolisi should not be allowed to go for the ball with his hands as a ruck has formed. He is clearly not the first man in. However, he does it anyway and a second refereeing mistake hands the Springboks a penalty for not releasing.
England still won 94% of their own ruck ball and were still able to generate enough speed and ball security to play an expansive game. However, they were not able to deliver the same ruck speed as South Africa, which the Springboks used to devastating effect. The home side’s game plan was to run England off their feet. This was also helped by playing at altitude and England being at the end of a post-Lions season.
Springbok clarity of purpose
The reason England set up so narrowly in this test is that South Africa normally rely on their forwards to hit up close to rucks off the 9. They have also overused the 1-3-3-1 system with forward pods carrying in midfield. In this game South Africa expected England to set up to defend this. They used their forwards much less than usual, with the pack carrying just 66 times and the backs managing 59 between them.
They also resourced rucks very well. Notice how many South African forwards were involved in the earlier example where Siya Kolisi is tackled. Compare that to the England example, where Maro Itoje is slightly late, Nick Isiekwe is very late and no other forwards resource that breakdown. If more forwards had been there, England would likely have retained the ball instead of conceding a penalty. This is why Eddie Jones said England were unlucky with many refereeing decisions, but that they should have been more disciplined and helped themselves.
The number of players put into rucks was important because South Africa did not use their forwards to get over the gain line. Any success in this regard was a bonus. Instead, they used the pack to create space and narrow the England defence. The priority was to get quick ball.
This quick ball was combined with the tactic of bypassing their own midfield, bringing Willie Le Roux into the line and attacking wide. In this way, South Africa were able to keep the tempo extremely high. Such a high tempo exposed England’s lack of conditioning at altitude. It also led to England making errors of judgment under pressure and giving away penalties. South Africa then used those penalties to put even more pressure on England.
South African kick chase both a strength and a potential weakness
This Faf De Klerk box kick is the one which resulted in a yellow card for Mako Vunipola. Aphiwe Dyantyi (11) times his tackle perfectly and smashes Jonny May (14) just as his feet touch the ground. Even without the penalty, South Africa had a great opportunity to put pressure on England. However, imagine for a moment that the kick was slightly too long and May had time to get a pass away. Notice how many England backs could be involved in an attack on the left side. There is a 45-metre space to attack, guarded by only two players. We saw exactly this scenario for the Jonny May try.
Henry Slade (13) fields a kick on England’s left. It is slightly long, and he is able to evade a couple of players before moving the ball infield. Suddenly, Brad Shields (20) has a 2 man overlap and is able to draw S’Busio Nkosi (14) to release Elliot Daly. Daly gives the ball to Jonny May (11). He outpaces the defenders to score a great try.
Both teams missed 19 tackles in this game. Errors in spacing led to several tries and lots of room for the wingers. In fact, between the 4 of them, the wingers made 14 clean breaks in this game. This space is likely to be reduced next week, although it would be a surprise if either team can eradicate the weakness entirely. England’s kicking strategy was good, and they can expect better execution next week. South Africa need to be careful on kick chases, as shown by Jonny May’s try. England must slow South African ball, otherwise, a similar game plan may lead to a similar result. Next week’s game is also at altitude.
England may look to change their back row. I suggest Chris Robshaw needs a rest. He made only 10 carries for 12 meters, 7 tackles and 2 passes. For a player whose unique selling point is his work rate, he seemed off the pace and underpowered. In contrast, Tom Curry made 20 tackles, a clean break and beat 2 defenders. Billy Vunipola was more industrious than England would like him to be as well, with 12 tackles, 13 carries, 7 passes and beating 4 defenders for plenty of meters.
Perhaps Sam Simmonds or Brad Shields will start at 6 next week?
I predict a tighter game and an England win by 5.
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!