The defensive effort the Springboks put in against the All Blacks in Wellington was one of the best I have seen in my lifetime. Not so much for the tactical genius behind it but more so for the pure heart displayed. Nevertheless, I decided to have a closer look at Rassie Erasmus’ defensive game plan.
A good rugby coach should always keep the game simple for his players, once game plans become too extravagant, confusion and disorganisation usually follow on the field. Although the Springboks made several defensive errors, they still came out on top, mainly because Erasmus kept the defensive game plan simple – he went back to basics.
Before I start, Erasmus declared his intentions for this game early on when he selected Handre Pollard at flyhalf. Pollard is the best defensive flyhalf in South Africa and one of the best in the world.
He did have some trouble with his playmaking and boot leading up to the match and was even dropped for the Australia game the week before. There were murmurings about who would start at flyhalf against the All Blacks but, when Pollard was named, it was a clear message about how South Africa would approach this game – they would back their defence.
The selection turned out to be spot on and it was exemplified when Pollard tackled Karl Tu’inukuafe one on one after a line break by the big man.
In general play, the Springboks used the rush/spread defence – the same defensive system used by the All Blacks. They did not commit to rucks and were very selective when they did so.
Even the turnover merchant, Malcolm Marx, was instructed to reduce his ruck contests so he could rejoin the defensive line.
Instead, they would fan out across the width of the field, making sure to cover it all.
Ruck contests were ramped up in either of the two 22m areas. They contested in the All Blacks’ 22m area and did everything they could – legal or not – to slow down the All Blacks ball in their own 22m area – the same as what New Zealand does.
The line speed (or rush) was very good, and the first three All Blacks receivers were put under constant pressure. The heads of the Springboks defenders close to the ruck were constantly turning between Aaron Smith and the positioning of his receivers – they intently focused on Aaron Smith to get their cue for the rush.
The communication was great too; not just verbal, but visual. You could see the Springbok defenders waving their hands in the air constantly, gesturing where more defenders were needed and what needed to be done.
This is a very under-utilised method of communicating in rugby these days – light travels faster than sound – why not then use visual cues to organise defences.
A foot behind
For most of the match, the Springboks would stand about a foot behind the ruck on defence. This goes against the conventional wisdom of standing as close as you can to the back of the ruck.
I have no doubt Erasmus picked this defensive ploy up during his time coaching in the Northern Hemisphere, prior to getting the Springboks job. It has been a relatively recent development.
The thinking is that by standing your defensive line behind the ruck, instead of breaking its connectivity by standing it beside either side of the ruck, your defensive line has a capability of sliding more fluidly across the field as one line in order to cover the field and areas where the attack is being concentrated.
It also gives the team using this ploy the ability to build up a head of steam in rushing up to the attacking line. It makes sense – when the ball leaves the scrumhalf’s hands, you would rather be in the process of accelerating than starting from a standing start.
This requires extra attention from the defenders close to the ruck and this is why the Springbok heads were constantly scanning between the scrumhalf and the attacking runners’ positioning. It is a fine line to keep but, if you do, you go a very long way to cutting down space and time for the attack, especially the first three receivers.
Probably more important, is that it gives the illusion of being onside. When the referee sees the defence start from a foot behind the ruck, they are more inclined to consider it legal, even if by the time the ball leaves the scrumhalf’s hands the defence are treading a fine line between onside and offside while accelerating.
I thought Nigel Owens exemplified this perfectly when Kieran Read asked him about the Springboks being offside. He replied “they were close to it but not quite there” – it is all about how the referee perceives things on the field and how you can influence that perception.
This ploy started to break down later in the second half, no doubt due to fatigue (especially because of the sheer amount of tackles the Springboks had to make), but also because the replacements did not stick to this foot behind plan.
RG Snyman was particularly guilty of this when he came on and his offside penalties, in addition to a few other, in my opinion, led to Willie le Roux’s yellow card.
The thing Erasmus would’ve been most pleased about in this game was the defensive positioning of his outside backs. Their alignment was much better, whether they used a mini-umbrella defence out wide or whether they were more passive and managed the space toward the sideline instead.
Most pleasing to him would’ve been the better judgement the outside backs displayed in picking their times to break their alignment and rush inside, and up, on the attackers.
Although they got this wrong on two occasions, and it led directly to All Black’s tries, some of them paid off – Aphiwe Dyantyi’s try saving attempt that forced the Damien McKenzie knock on in the dying moments of the game is a good example.
The Springboks’ outside backs have been using this tactic to decide for themselves since the beginning of the year, especially in the England series. They have persisted with it and their outside backs are getting better and better at it. This type of defensive decision making and cohesion in the outside backs comes with time together and experience.
The most pleasing thing from an outsider’s point of view is Erasmus, by allowing his outside backs to choose their alignment out wide (or even to rush up individually), is clearly giving his players the ability to think for themselves.
Erasmus has bought back some of the classic Springbok tactics of years past, especially the 2009 Springboks who won both tests against the All Blacks in that calendar year.
The Springboks were happy to kick downfield for territory and back their defence. This shows confidence in their game plan and what they are doing. This was exemplified when the Springboks chose to kick the ball out from their own try line at the 77-minute mark and to back their defence for the last three minutes of the game.
Most intriguing was Faf de Klerk’s willingness to put up box kicks (ala Fourie du Preez) with a good pressure chase by his wingers. Faf needs to work on this aspect of his game though as his box kicks were just a bit off target and didn’t allow for a full contest for the ball, or enough pressure on the catcher.
When Faf perfects this part of his game, the Springboks defence will add a significant string to their bow.
The lines run by the Springboks loose forwards from the scrum were really good and the sheer urgency with which they did it was outstanding. When Ryan Crotty or Rieko Ioane (the All Blacks’ set piece gain line runners) hit the gain line, they were met by not only Springbok inside backs but also Warren Whitely or Siya Kolisi – this shows great work ethic.
The Springbok backs compressed off scrums, with the winger coming in to basically mark the All Blacks outside centre. This forced New Zealand to go around the defensive line as they would just run into a brick wall by trying to go through it.
As is traditional, the fullback would hover to cover the space left by the winger on the far sideline and the blind winger would hover to cover the full back’s area of responsibility – Willie le Roux, in particular, did his task well.
This was shown when he covered a Beauden Barrett cross-field kick aimed at Rieko Ioane in an attempt to get around the Springboks compressed defensive line.
The All Blacks showed why they are such a good team off one of the early side-of-the-field scrums when they identified what the Springboks were doing defensively and picked up an individual error by Aphiwe Dyantyi.
After the first midfield phase off the scrum, Dyantyi ran automatically to cover the full back’s area of responsibility without thinking that the All Blacks could direct play back towards his wing.
The home team did exactly this and got the ball on the outside of the Springboks’ blind side defensive line that was comprised of their front row. Cody Taylor, Ben Smith and Aaron Smith combined beautifully to exploit this minor mistake to score a belter of a try down the sideline.
Credit must be given to the visitors on the very next scrum, which took place in the exact same place on the other side of the field. The All Blacks tried the same ploy, but Jesse Kriel did not automatically run to cover the fullback’s area of responsibility.
Instead, he looked at what was going on and ended up tackling Cody Taylor into touch when his opponents attempted the same ploy.
The Springboks, very interestingly, put two defenders on the blindside of defensive scrums on their own five-metre line. They did this whether they numbered up defensively on the open side or not.
This shows great trust in the ability of their inside defenders, and loose forwards, to track behind the defensive line to get to the space left on the far side of the field.
In doing so, Erasmus played the odds and decided a Read pre-determined pick up from the back of the scrum towards the blindside was a much bigger risk than the All Blacks getting the ball out wide and around his compressed defensive line. After all, he had his cover defenders to rely on to cover the wide space.
This tactic was justified when a Read pick up from the back of the scrum was twice thwarted by Kriel defending on the blind side – had he not been there, it would have been two certain tries.
South Africa stacked the back of their defensive lineouts with their tall men and forced the All Blacks to throw to the front.
This forced the scrumhalf’s pass to hang an extra second to get it the extra distance to the flyhalf. This, in turn, gave the Springbok loose forwards an extra second to run toward the 10-12 channel – which is exactly what Kolisi and Whiteley did.
The Springboks also did not contest almost all of their defensive lineouts, nor did they compete lineouts inside their own 22m area at all.
This allowed them not only to combat their opponents’ lineout drive, but also allowed their forwards to get into defensive positions before the opposing forwards could get into their attacking positions.
On the two occasions the Springboks lost patience and contested the All Blacks throw-in within their own 22m area, the All Blacks scored tries from lineout drives.
Erasmus would not have been happy with this loss of patience by his forwards which led to preventable tries.
On defensive lineouts inside their own 22m area, especially on their five-metre line, the Springboks positioned their scrumhalf inside the flyhalf and the hooker at scrumhalf.
This put another defender into an already compressed and overmanned defensive line, but also allowed the hooker (especially a hooker the size of Malcolm Marx) to combat the lineout drive defence straight from the back for maximum impact.
The scrumhalf’s speed and agility off the line also provided excellent cover and rushing-up ability in the disconnect between the back of the lineout and the flyhalf.
On defensive lineouts outside their own 22m area, South Africa positioned their scrumhalf in the five-metre channel, where the hooker usually stands, and the hooker would stand where the scrumhalf usually stands.
Off this set-up, the backs would compress as they would from scrums, while the fullback and blind winger would hover to cover the far side and back, respectively.
This meant the scrumhalf could stay on the touchline to cover that side of the field once the ball was worked across the field, which allowed the blind winger to track across the field to help defend the bigger spaces on the other side.
The scrumhalf’s speed allowed the near side of the field to be immunised from the All Blacks directing play that way, as they did off some scrums, or using their speed to get around the forwards who were left to defend that side of the field.
It also allowed the tight forwards to stay put from these lineouts, which saves them energy instead of having to track across the field.
The constant pressure the Springboks’ defence applied on the hosts started to show as the game progressed.
Players like Beauden Barret started to make uncharacteristic mistakes. His general play kicking on attack was a bit off and mistimed and so were some of his passes.
Anton Lienert-Brown’s intercept try was a good example of this, as the two or three passers inside him were all under pressure from Springbok defenders and, by the time Lienert-Brown got the ball, the pressure had built to such levels that he made the mistake of trying to offload a bad pass which led to the Cheslyn Kolbe intercept.
Such pressure also builds frustration in teams, especially teams such as the All Blacks who prefer to build into their tries and prefer to play wider.
Aaron Smith epitomised this frustration when, after numerous attempts to set up their attacking structure were thwarted, he attempted a quick tap and pass to speed the game up but instead ended up being the main contributor to the Lienert-Brown interception.
Faf de Klerk
Special mention should be given to Faf de Klerk. Erasmus obviously gave him free licence to roam behind the defensive line, make unpredictable defensive decisions and thwart the All Blacks defence.
This makes sense – the scrumhalf has the best seat in the house to see the opposition attack build from behind the defensive line and to make decisions on where best to inject himself to cause maximum disruption.
His work rate in doing so was outstanding and his try-saving rush tackle on Liam Squire and him catching Aaron Smith behind the ruck are excellent examples of his decision making and work rate.
The question from all of this is whether the Wallabies brains trust will be able to analyse, and produce countermeasures to the Springboks defence.
Will they see that, in Erasmus giving De Klerk free licence to roam on defence, he sometimes neglects his primary duty of covering short kicks in behind the Springbok defensive line?
Will they see that, by leaving De Klerk and the front row on the near sideline from lineouts, the Springboks defence may be exposed to a big, elusive runner such as Israel Folau suddenly switching back to a one-on-one scenario?
Will they notice the best countermeasure to a rush/spread defence is to truck it up through the middle until the defenders are forced to come in and leave their wingers (especially small in the Springboks case) in one-on-one situations out wide?
Will they notice that, by compressing their backline defence off set pieces, the Springboks are leaving massive space out wide for someone like Folau to exploit via a cross-field kick?
Will they instruct their scrumhalf to look to switch play back to the blind side to exploit an individual mistake from the Springbok wingers when they automatically run across field from set pieces to cover their fullback’s area of responsibility?
Will they see the best way to combat the foot behind ruck defence is to pick and drive for a few phases to make easy metres? Will they instruct their backs to provide short ball inside/outside runner options for their outside backs when the Springbok wingers shoot up out of alignment leave big spaces on the outside?
Will they pick a back three that is competent under the high ball and return kicks to combat the Springboks obvious desire to bring back the 2009 Springbok tactics?
Will they see the massive spaces the Springboks leave open on the far side of their defensive five-metre scrums? Will they be able to concoct a way of getting the ball to that open space? Will they see the Springboks leave the hooker’s channel from lineouts wide open inside their own 22m area and will they be able to come up with a trick play to exploit that?
Will they see the Springboks defence is vulnerable to a big strong runner from the lineouts in the disconnect between the back of the lineout and the flyhalf?
The burning question is whether the Wallabies brains trust will be able to ask these (and hopefully more) questions of themselves and whether they are able to come up with tactics to exploit these weaknesses in the Springboks defence.
And, most importantly, whether they are able, or willing, to amend their game plan to counter the Springboks defence and to put themselves in the best position possible for what is a must-win game.
Erasmus went into this game with a clear plan to back his defensive system. His defensive system was kept relatively simple and with a minimum of moving parts – this allowed a much clearer understanding from the players. When things are kept simple, hunger and desire are allowed to shine through more prominently, as it did in this test.
As with the Springboks attack, their defence is kept as simple and effective as possible and it will only get better with time.
The question for Wallabies fans is whether the Wallabies brains trust can see the chinks in the Springboks defensive armour, whether they can exploit those chinks and most importantly – whether they are able, or willing, to amend their game plan to put them in the best position to win Saturday’s game.