Enforcer Eben Etzebeth, scrum-half Faf de Klerk and cool defensive decision-maker Lukhanyo Am are so important for South Africa
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Rassie Erasmus has flicked the rascal switch and is in the mood for mischief ahead of what could be an epic Test series against the British and Irish Lions.
Last week, he was tweeting about Owen Farrell’s tackle technique – which might just be his specialist subject if he were ever to appear on Mastermind. This week, the early announcement of the Springboks line-up is a ploy borrowed directly from the playbook Warren Gatland used as Wales head coach.
There are some mild surprises, specifically the lighter Kwagga Smith starting at number eight and three backs on the bench to cover the returning duo of Handre Pollard and Makazole Mapimpi. But the names in South Africa’s match-day 23 do not matter as much as the message.
South Africa’s first Test team to face British and Irish Lions
Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber do not need to wait until Thursday for their selection to be out in the open, because there is so much confidence and conviction in their strategy. What can we expect from the world champions, then?
Up-and-at-‘em defence that leads from the back
With the best will in the world, Willie Le Roux did not always look as wholehearted for Wasps as he does on national service.
As well as an important playmaker, who ghosts into the line behind heavy runners, the 31-year-old full-back is a vital defensive leader for South Africa. This is because Nienaber’s system is launched by the aggression of the Springboks’ wings, with Le Roux following up as a safety net.
This is a rough map of the direction in which they are likely to move:
Speaking in February 2020 on a podcast for the Irish Examiner, Ronan O’Mahony revealed some inner workings of the Erasmus-Nienaber regime at Munster.
Nienaber ran ‘attitude sessions’ that entailed a player standing in the middle of a circle of colleagues, all of whom would be holding tackle-bags and would run into the middle man one by one.
The player leading the drill would need to drive four ‘carriers’ out of the circle to complete a turn, before repeating that feat later. Thighs burned and mettle was tested.
From a technical standpoint, Nienaber used a similar template in Ireland to the one he has ingrained in the South Africa set-up. O’Mahony, a former wing, relished the responsibility.
Jacques Nienaber has been promoted to the post of South Africa head coach
“He wanted wingers very high and always wanted us making reads, especially from first-phase. From a lineout, say, if I was the open winger, he wanted me counting passes,” O’Mahony said.
“I’d try to get up high in the line on the first pass, higher on the second pass and on the third he would want me to make a read. My job was to try and make a man-and-ball hit on that third pass.
“Sometimes I’d get there, sometimes I wouldn’t and I’d think ‘jeez, I’ve messed this up’ if they got a breakaway. But, in a review, he’d say: ‘No. That’s exactly what I want you to do. Keep doing it. Keep going after it.’”
A man-and-ball tackle was the ideal outcome for these homing-missiles on the wing, but not essential. Forcing a poor pass that checked the stride of the last man would constitute success, as long as the wing was backed up by covering teammates.
“The better you get at it, the more you try it and the more you find yourself really high in the line making these really good reads that can be momentum-swinging hits in the wider channels,” O’Mahony added.
Willie Le Roux prepares to tackle Tom CCurry
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“If you didn’t make it, he would show you a scenario and explain that if you didn’t go for a read and went on a jockey instead, which is a bit softer, and waited for your 13 [to drift across], you would end up tackling them in the same spot.
“If you go for the read, put their skill-set under pressure and let your 13 swim underneath, you are still going to catch them in the same place if they do get the ball away.”
Outside centre Lukhanyo Am is the icy decision-maker at the heart of South Africa’s fiery defence. If the true gauge of principles is how they stand up under pressure, this second-half passage from last Wednesday demonstrates the faith that the Springboks have in Nienaber’s way.
It begins from a Lions lineout and the hosts are still down to 13 men. Cheslin Kolbe occupies the slot at the front that is usually reserved for scrum-half Faf de Klerk:
After a midfield carry from Tom Curry, Am calls players over to his side of the breakdown:
Conor Murray then feeds Bundee Aki. Watch Sbu Nkosi, the openside wing:
Nkosi makes the read, identifying that the Lions are running a pull-back from Aki to Owen Farrell, and jams in to tackle the latter. If Farrell had managed to move the ball away, Am was ready.
He had swum past the Lions decoy-runner – Chris Harris – to stay alive. Le Roux had followed Nkosi to shut the door, and he tackles Aki in this instance:
On the next phase, as the Lions regroup and bounce back towards the near touchline, we see more non-negotiable facets of South Africa’s defence: desperation and togetherness.
It is hooker Malcolm Marx that sprints back to down Anthony Watson, with Le Roux involved in a goal-line choke-tackle on Wyn Jones:
Mapimpi, having recovered from COVID-19, has replaced Nkosi and is a disruptive rocket on the edge of the defensive line. Scrum-half De Klerk sprinkles disruptive star-dust with his idiosyncratic role, and the up-and-out approach is completed by ferocious competition at the tackle-area with jackalling and counter-rucking. It is not mindless, though. Often, South Africa’s scavangers will leave rucks alone to maintain width in the front line.
The Springboks want to funnel opponents into the middle of the pitch and man-handle them. It is at the back that the process starts.
A multi-faceted kicking game
On the face of it, South Africa’s tendency to put boot to ball may seem unimaginative. The fourth minute of their win over the Lions last Wednesday underlined how disciplined they are when it comes to kicking.
After a bullish breakdown turnover, hooker Joseph Dweba tore across the halfway line. De Klerk arrived at the next ruck and had Le Roux, Nkosi and Am to his left. There was a chance to pick off a disjointed Lions defence. However, the scrum-half immediately hooked the ball down-field rather than feeding his full-back.
Simply put, South Africa kick so much because territory gives their defence and lineout jumping an opportunity to force errors further up the field. And there are nuances, too.
Usually, their kick-chase is configured precisely. A quick jumper will lead and contest in the air. A heavy -hitter man will follow to make the first tackle, with a breakdown specialist ready for the battle on the floor. On Wednesday, the Lions were so concerned with blocking off Kolbe that Eben Etzebeth smashed Liam Williams:
Marco van Staden then nabbed the ball:
South Africa A 2
Not unlike New Zealand, South Africa manufacture try-scoring opportunities for their explosive strike-runners with patience and intensity during kicking exchanges. One misdirected clearance that gives Kolbe space, as Elliot Daly discovered last week, can hurt you.
One organisational lapse on the chase, as England suffered prior to Mapimpi’s try in the Rugby World Cup final, is enough to concede seven points and get a rest under your posts:
Damian de Allende is a phenomenal carrier and Le Roux knits things together when South Africa are in phase-play. De Klerk and Am are among the most intelligent off-the-ball runners around. Watch out for Pieter-Steph du Toit hanging wide as well:
Otherwise, South Africa have introduced some trickery around their kicking game. Dummy box-kicks are a trendy way of catching out opponents that jump the gun and drop players back, especially after South Africa have secured a restart. Cobus Reinach started and finished one of these sweeping attacks against Georgia:
This deceptive dink from De Klerk, dressed up like a box-kick and then a cross-field snipe, found Herschel Jantjies and required Daly to make a fine cover-tackle:
Faf de Klerk kick
There are layers to South Africa’s kicking game. Switching off to any of them at any stage can be lethal.
Muscle and manipulation at the set piece
A pack featuring Etzebeth, Du Toit and Franco Mostert means South Africa can station tall men at the back of lineouts.
This coerces opponents into throwing to the front, which reduces options and makes it more difficult to instigate drives. On the other side of the ball, the Springboks’ own maul is formidable.
Finally, to the scrum. The six-two split of replacements that characterised the Rugby World Cup 2019 campaign has been shelved for now while Pollard and Mapimpi settle back in.
However, the presence of front-rowers Steven Kitshoff, Marx and Frans Malherbe on the bench as cover for Ox Nché, Bongi Mbonmabi and Trevor Nyakane means that South Africa will be a mightily powerful scrummaging unit for all 80 minutes. This game could be decided by a late set-piece penalty. The Springboks will be steeled for that.