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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.