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Rugby | Springboks

Allister Coetzee © Gallo Images

Bold defensive shift key for Boks

Whenever the Springboks talk about being bold the reference is to their attacking game but they may need a much bolder tweak to their defensive strategy if they are to stand any chance of prevailing against the All Blacks at Newlands on Saturday.

After the 57-0 defeat to the Kiwis in Albany a few weeks ago there was much focus from the Bok coaching staff in post-match interviews on what might have been learned.

Some of that was applied in Bloemfontein, and even though the Boks were held to a draw by the Wallabies, it was a performance where they did show greater inventiveness on attack.

“I thought they looked a lot more dangerous,” was how All Black coach Steve Hansen put it and his sentiments were echoed by his assistant coach Ian Foster, who said that if the South Africans maintain their current path things would start coming together for them.

That may be so and Bok coach Allister Coetzee has rightly asserted that his men will look to protect their possession more by holding onto the ball at Newlands.

That is the right approach, particularly if the Bok kickers and chasers are going to be as inaccurate as they were the last time the two teams met.

Get your field kicks wrong against New Zealand and you are in massive trouble, as was proved at the QBE Stadium.

But attack is only half the game and it mustn’t be forgotten that the All Blacks scored eight tries in Albany.

Several of those were because of handling and other errors such as misdirected kicks that led to the All Blacks pouncing with impunity when they had turn-over ball to play with, and of course five missed Bok lineouts certainly didn’t help.

The 33 missed tackles though was a massive contributor and a lot of the headway that the All Blacks enjoyed might not have been forthcoming had the Boks employed a rush defensive system instead of their current mostly static shift system with occasional dedicated rush runners.


If the Bok management had learned anything from the All Black series against the British and Irish Lions it should have been how the Kiwi game-breakers at the back were made to look so much more mortal and less invincible when playing against the impressive line-speed of Warren Gatland’s defensive system.

Confronted with a situation where he had a man on top of him almost every time he got the ball, Beauden Barrett wasn’t quite the same player that we saw in Super Rugby.

Although, to be precise about it, the Lions series wasn’t exactly a movie we hadn’t seen before either, for Barrett was played out of the game when confronted with the Crusaders’ line-speed in a key New Zealand derby just before the Lions series started.

Most of the teams around the world are working on variations of a rush defence system, and if you watch Munster play in the GuinnessPRO14 you will notice that even successful former Stormers defence guru Jacques Nienaber, who could well have another stint as a Bok assistant in his future when Rassie Erasmus returns as SA Rugby’s director of rugby, appears to have shifted away from shift (no pun intended).

The All Blacks actually started applying rush defence long after their top franchises started achieving success with it, perhaps because like Brendan Venter, their assistant coach Wayne Smith was not sold on it.

However, they are applying it now and the pressure on the Bok runners would have contributed to the errors they made last time out, such as the one that led to the intercept try at a relatively early stage of the game that seemed to particularly sting the Bok challenge.

There is a high element of risk in the system and it would be understandable if the Boks were reluctant to change at this late hour before such an important game, but giving the All Black runners extra metres to play with and build up momentum appeared to play into their hands a few weeks back.

Make no mistake, the new pre-occupation with line-speed and rush defence may not be great for the game as it does sometimes feel like we may get to the point where the ball will hardly ever get beyond the flyhalf.

Referees are going to have to be more vigilant in their policing of the off-side line and it is going to be a massive challenge for teams to find ways of getting around it.

Already though teams are being more inventive and achieving some success by probing closer to the fringes, with Argentina managing it to some extent in both of their games against the All Blacks, and much of the Bok planning ahead of Saturday will revolve around dealing with the opposition’s defence.

However, if they want to be bold and really improve their chances of scoring what would be a stunning reversal from Albany, some big shifts to their own defensive strategy might be just what the doctor ordered.


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