McFarland's role under-stated but crucial
Springbok defensive coach John McFarland can be forgiven if at times he wonders if he has drawn the short straw since his move to the national squad from the Bulls earlier in the year.
At the outset, his appointment was criticised on the basis that it ignored the talents and undoubted ability of Jacques Nienaber, the Stormers' defence guru who has helped that franchise become the Super Rugby leaders when it comes to that crucial aspect of the game.
This has led to the microscope being placed on the Bok defence, and when negative things have happened, McFarland has heard about it from the critics.
However, even now that the Bok defence is starting to become a dominant factor in test matches that they win, it might appear to McFarland that the critics still aren’t happy.
It’s not his fault at all, but now the gripe from back home is apparently that the Boks are being forced to defend too much.
Rule No 1 of modern Bok rugby appears to be that when you are in the northern hemisphere, you are not expected just to win, but to win in style.
Never mind if that expectation doesn’t really correspond to the facts of recent history, with the last big win over Scotland being scored nearly 10 years ago.
If McFarland is hurt though by the lack of acknowledgement paid to the improvements the Boks have made to their defensive game during the course of the year, he does not show it.
As always, when he faced the media at a press conference in London on Tuesday, he dealt with the bare facts of his job.
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“I think we have been playing in the right defensive pattern all year, apart from a few lapses in the Soweto test against the All Blacks,” said McFarland.
“The good thing for me and the most impressive thing is that we are now chasing dominance all the time in the collisions. We have certainly increased our dominance of the collisions from where we were in the Rugby Championship, and that is pleasing to see. Apart from that, we have only conceded an average of one or two line breaks a game, which is pretty phenomenal.
“Defence is not something you immediately get right. It’s a process, and the more you coach the players the more you get to understand them and grow with them. You mustn’t forget we have only had 11 tests with these players.”
So why are the Boks being asked to defend so much in matches against teams many expect them to dominate to the extent that there is little defending required?
For McFarland, it comes down to several factors, but one of the chief areas he feels is letting the Boks down at the moment is discipline.
“You’ve got to look at the context (of why the team are doing so much defending). A lot of what happens is orientated around discipline. When we were 21-3 ahead with half an hour to go in Edinburgh it was obvious Scotland weren’t going to kick for goal when we were so ahead. So they kicked the ball and played the ball in our half, and they kept winning penalties which enabled them to keep doing it so that we only had 30% of the territory and possession.
“When Scotland opted to kick us into our own half it was difficult to exit. When you are made to play down your own end it is difficult to exit.
It was the other way around in the first half. We resolved to kick the ball into the corners and it took a lot of the sting out of the Scotland game.”
One of the other factors that may be contributing to the amount of time the Boks are having to spend under pressure and defending their own line is the disparity in the north and south exposure to the new scrum engagement laws.
The northern hemisphere players have been playing to them for three or four months, whereas the South Africans have had only two test matches to get used to them.
“I think we are doing remarkably well considering it has only been two games and both of those games were test matches against teams that have been playing to those laws for a few months,” he said.
“One thing is that the scrums have become so much more important again.
Test rugby is about harvesting points, and everyone is now trying to scrum one another. It has become a massive battle. England did not use one backline move against us off a scrum in June, there was invariably a penalty either one way or another way. So you don’t see the backlines going backwards to keep the space.
“Another thing that I have noticed is that the ball comes back from the loose scrums a heck of a lot slower in international rugby than it does in Super Rugby. There is a lot more competing at the breakdown. A lot of our improvement during the year is down to us having the right mix now at loose-forward.
“Having the back row settled does make a big difference. Francois Louw has offered us massive positives because he has been in the northern hemisphere for so long and he knows the game here so well. He and Duane Vermeulen are very good together.
"And then you have the Willem Alberts big hits. The big tackle Willem Alberts put in early in the Scotland game, where he drove De Luca back five or six metres, had a big impact on how that game was played out.
“They are the right mix, with Flo making the turn-overs, and then you also have Marcell Coetzee coming on with his massive work-rate and his ability to contribute in all aspects of the game. Even though he doesn’t start, Marcell plays a big role in bringing the right balance to our back-row.”