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Time to break it down

There is a common perception that if a team picks a top openside flank, the opposition will be in for a world of pain. However, the reality is that the success a team enjoys at the breakdown is rarely solely down to the efforts of that solitary individual. The truth is that there are a combination of factors that need to occur before said world-class fetcher can enjoy success.

If we examine the evidence, a good opensider will hit between 15 and 20 rucks per match, while a team is likely to defend around 70 to 80 rucks per match. On average, the player will contest one in every five rucks and there is no guarantee he will steal the ball on each visit.

If an opensider has an unbelievable day at the office, he will notch up around three to four turnovers. My question is then: would these steals alone by one individual change the context of the game? The simple answer is no. Thus, in order to prosper at the breakdown there needs to be a collective effort –and not only from the forwards.

At one stage during my tenure with the national team, we had a handful of individuals who were particularly effective at stealing or slowing the ball down, namely: Bismarck du Plessis, John Smit, Beast Mtawarira, Schalk Burger, Heinrich Brussow and Francois Louw. And even Jean de Villiers would have the odd go at stealing the ball at the breakdown.

While a player like Louw is a classic opensider and his influence was missed this past weekend, four players hitting on average 10-15 rucks per game becomes far more effective in terms of the bigger picture.

The predominant issue from the Boks’ match this past weekend was that Scotland enjoyed dominance on the deck as they were able to neutralise their hosts’ momentum and limit the effect of their ball carriers. (It should also be noted that the unavailability of Willem Alberts and the injury to Arno Botha in the fourth minute contributed to the above scenario.)

Particularly in the first stanza, Scotland came off the line aggressively and quickly. This prevented the Boks from building up their usual head of steam, which aids them in getting over the advantage line effectively. In turn, the Scotland defenders dominated the collisions, which allowed abrasive flanker Alasdair Strokosch to cause mayhem on the ground.

From a coach’s perspective, the breakdown is up there with the most vital areas that need coaching in the modern game. In our environment at Bath, we would spend as much as 25 percent of our time on the breakdown. If one were to consider that the game consists of 70-odd breakdowns, 15 lineouts and 8 scrums on attack and defence, it’s clear to see where one’s attention should be placed.

When examining the breakdown, the next factor to consider is the referee's profile. While Romain Poite is a good international referee, had a team done their homework on him, they would have discovered that he’s fairly lenient at the ruck and tackle area.

For example, during the match there were blatant side-entries from both sides on attack and defence. Primarily, however, the Scotland players were slow in rolling away and when they counter-rucked, they failed to come through the gate legally.

There has certainly been a swing in referees' interpretations. Around 2009, in particular, about 50 percent of penalties were awarded to the attacking team while the other half went to the defending team.

This is fundamentally why the Springbok game worked so well during those days. We played no rugby in our own half and any team that chose to play rugby in their own half, would be punished by our suffocating defence and accurate goal-kicking. This approach led us to a hat-trick of wins over the All Blacks that season.

At this point in time, however, the ratio is 75:25 in favour of the attacking team. The benefit of the doubt is clearly favouring the team with ball in hand.

The principles I discussed last week pertaining to the scrums apply to the breakdown. I share Heyneke Meyer’s call for a standardised approach to policing the breakdown.

At the moment, much like the scrum, the referee’s interpretation at the ruck and tackle area is far too subjective. For example, it’s now common practice for one referee to place an emphasis on the tackler rolling away, while another official will prioritise the first arriving player on attack. And a third referee may pinpoint the arriving defender, other than the tackler, coming through the gate legally.

The classic case is Bryce Lawrence’s officiating of the 2011 Rugby World Cup quarterfinal. From extensive prior analysis, we found that he awarded an average of 25 penalties per match and had a 65:35 ratio in favour of the attacking team. Furthermore, he awarded a higher percentage of penalties at the breakdown than any other international referee at the time.

However, during the now infamous clash between South Africa and Australia, he awarded the fewest penalties any referee ever had in a Rugby World Cup match since 1987. In total, he blew for 17 penalties: 11 against the Springboks and six against the Wallabies. In one match, his entire mechanics had changed.

Thus, as professional coaches, we are ultimately calling for a clearer outline from the game’s lawmakers in order to eliminate refereeing discrepancies.

Turning to this Saturday’s clash, the Samoans will offer a highly physical approach and thus the Boks will do well to increase their line speed and employ double hits in the tackle. The key is to catch the free-running Samoans on or before the advantage line in order to neutralise their ball carriers and the threat of offloads. Moreover, the Boks will look to dominate the set phases, as this facet of play is the Samoans’ primary weakness.

While I believe the Boks will win by between 10 and 15 points, after last week’s prediction, don’t go to the bookies with my bet!

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