Playing the cards you’re dealt
As I predicted in a previous column, the current card system was a ticking time bomb just waiting to explode.
While foul play is unacceptable and should be punished with a red card, I believe it’s become too easy for referees to brandish yellow cards.
The Eden Park clash, billed as the battle of all battles, was marred by poor decisions by the match officials. Rugby is not the type of game that should pit 15 men against 14 or 14 versus 13.
However, the reality of the modern game is that a coach should expect that his team will more than likely, at some stage in the match, end up with 14 players for at least 10 minutes.
As such, coaches need to prepare their teams tactically for this scenario in the same way in which they would, for example, prepare to counter high kicks or a strong defensive system.
There are a number of tactical principles which a team should adopt if reduced to 14 men:
The safest way to play is to concentrate on attacking the shorter side of the field. This tactic will ensure more rapid support to one’s carriers and will minimise mistakes away from one’s support.
Furthermore, tactical kicking must be executed on the shorter side of the field and into space. Pressure needs to be applied in order to gain distance and force the attacker with ball in-hand into touch.
The Boks rely too heavily on the high kick, hoping for a mistake by the opposition, instead of kicking into space where the receiver has to work much harder to get to the ball.
A ball on the ground is always more difficult to gather. Ruan Pienaar did, however, kick the ball into space well (onto the ground) and was able to gain a lot of territory for the Boks.
When it came to the lineouts, the Boks used their numbers effectively at the set-piece when reduced to 14 men. They notably made use of five-man lineouts with Francois Louw in the scrumhalf position.
While this tactic afforded the Boks a good opportunity to win their own ball, unfortunately inaccurate throw-ins primarily from Pienaar – before Adriaan Strauss took to the field – led to some lost ball in the lineouts.
The Boks scored their first try through the driving maul tactic and although short of numbers in the pack, I believe the Boks could have utilised the maul more often as an attacking weapon.
When they did so, they boasted five players plus Louw and Strauss as opposed to the All Blacks attempting to stop the maul using a maximum of five men.
Usually, New Zealand’s hooker stays in the 5m and does not join the maul, while their last man in the lineout also delays joining because he wants to cover the inside of the field. Without him they only have four in the maul but if he joins it’s five. It’s all a numbers game.
While the Boks set the tone with a brilliant first scrum, they failed to sustain the pressure on the All Blacks. When a player short, it remains imperative to have eight men scrummaging on one’s own ball. In this situation, the key is for one of the backs to fill in on the left side of the scrum to ensure good front-foot ball.
Meanwhile, on opposition ball, when playing with fewer numbers, one’s scrumhalf, in particular, needs to place even greater pressure on the opposing number eight and nine. The Boks failed to do so as they were more concerned about the All Black backs on attack.
Furthermore, on defence, when down to 14 men, it’s crucial not to overcommit players to the collision area. In addition, a team’s one-on-one tackles have to be aggressive and spot on. On Saturday, Western Province showed just how to defend when reduced to 14 men.
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