The Springboks have endured a tumultuous 2017, from the highs of whitewashing France in June and coming within a dreadful refereeing decision of a win over New Zealand in Cape Town, to the lows of a humiliating 57-0 defeat to the same opposition in Albany and two frustrating draws with the Wallabies. You get the impression that Allister Coetzee doesn’t have a particularly good handle on his squad, with some awful performances since he succeeded Heyneke Meyer. There was a pervading sense of the players taking ownership of the team about their fired-up display in the second New Zealand Test, and despite their recent failings, they have enough quality to be extremely dangerous.
Traditional Springbok Values
The standout feature of South Africa’s better performances this year has been their fearsome levels of intensity and aggression in the close-quarters exchanges. Their scrum and maul have returned to the much-feared forces of nature that they once were, dismantling even a big, hard-nosed New Zealand eight:
On top of being powerful collectively, the Springboks have standout individuals in their pack. In Siya Kolisi, they have a tearaway openside flanker cut from the same cloth as Ardie Savea, and being given the captaincy seems to have brought the best out of Eben Etzebeth. After years of hype, he has finally delivered on his potential of being the rightful heir to Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield, dispensing with the off the ball stuff (while still retaining a hard edge) and focusing on annihilating opposition forwards in contact:
Malcom Marx has emerged as one of the leading hookers at international level during this year’s Rugby Championship, with the Cape Town game being his finest hour. Aside from his phenomenal breakdown work, he wreaked havoc on New Zealand’s defence with his ball carrying and passing once he broke through the first line, fulfilling the extra back rower role that Bismarck du Plessis did before him, showing up a world class operator like Dane Coles:
Some of Allister Coetzee’s selections this year have been baffling, choosing inferior players in positions where better ones are available and in doing so, giving the opposition opportunities to expose their flaws. There is nothing Joe Schmidt loves more in the opposition ranks than an underpowered winger with terrible positional sense and no aerial prowess. Raymond Rhule suffered a nightmare against New Zealand, and you have to wonder what else Dillyn Leyds could have done to be in Allister Coetzee’s matchday squad from the get-go. Unfortunately for Ireland, the deficiencies in Rhule’s game have been acknowledged, and he probably won’t feature this Saturday, but Courtnall Skosan is still worth targeting:
Andries Coetzee is an elusive counterattacker at fullback, but with the strong kicking games of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, Ireland would do well to put the ball above Skosan with the likes of Adam Byrne and Jacob Stockdale bearing down on him as often as possible, as well as sending their biggest players running down his channel.
Aside from their wingers’ shortcomings, South Africa’s main weakness has been the personnel Allister Coetzee has used at 8, 9 and 10. Warren Whiteley’s and Duane Vermeulen’s injury problems have limited their options in this area, but a nation long-renowned for producing world-class forwards should have a better third-choice number eight at their disposal than Uzair Cassiem. He was anonymous throughout the Rugby Championship, and even at club level, he’s not a player who catches the eye.
Having taken far too long to recognise Cassiem’s shortcomings, Allister Coetzee discarded him and brought Francois Louw into the starting XV in his place, alongside Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit. It was an unorthodox selection, considering that Louw is an openside flanker and du Toit is a lock, but between the three of them, they managed to cover all of the bases of back row play: explosive ball carrying, heavy tackling, lineout jumping and scavenging at the breakdown. The balance that was struck was more than enough to compete with the New Zealand loose forwards, and you suspect they will be chosen to start again.
In the back line, Faf de Klerk’s move to Sale has been a hammer blow to the Springboks; his ability to produce game-changing moments was a vital asset, but Allister Coetzee’s selections at scrum-half since have been a hindrance. Ross Cronjé wasn’t a standout figure against Argentina in Port Elizabeth, but he provided reasonably quick ruck ball and kept his error count low, and then grew into his own in Cape Town. Although his ankle injury was unfortunate, opting for Francois Hougaard ahead of Rudy Paige was ill-judged.
Hougaard’s sniping threat and try-scoring proficiency are valuable traits, but the ability to pass and box-kick accurately on a consistent basis is beyond him. It’s easy to blame it on the fact that he’s a converted winger, but Paige’s vibrancy would better serve South Africa if he started in the absence of Cronjé, with Hougaard carrying out the impact substitute role. This shouldn’t be an issue unless there is a recurrence of Cronjé’s ankle injury, but it demonstrates just how bad Coetzee’s understanding is of a pecking order that should be relatively straightforward based on the evidence on front of him.
At 10, Elton Jantjies is an out-half very much in the mould of Freddy Michalak: a virtuoso when his pack are going forward, but his bad performances are characterised by hesitation, erroneous decision-making, lamentable passing and cross-field running. It’s hard to understand the reasoning behind Allister Coetzee’s selection of Jantjies ahead of Handré Pollard. The Bulls captain is a superior player to Jantjies in every facet of out-half play; he gets more length and distance from his kicks out of hand, he’s a more accurate passer and goal-kicker, his decision-making under pressure is better, and he has a greater physical presence.
Most importantly, though, he’s more consistent in how flat he stands to the gain line. One of the things that makes life difficult for the players around Jantjies is how he varies his distance from the gain line on a phase-by-phase basis, depending on how much headway his pack are making and the amount of pressure the opposition defence are exerting on him. Pollard, a lot like his Irish counterpart Johnny Sexton, takes the ball as close to the line as possible (whether his pack are on the front foot or not) to get more change out of opposition defences and to give his back line the best possible chance of exploiting space.
A significant knock-on effect of Coetzee’s selections has been the negative impact it has had on South Africa’s attack. It’s a shame that the Springboks have struggled to get decent ball to the players outside 10 with any regularity, because in Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel, they have a centre partnership with high levels of pace, power, skill and intelligence that could do serious damage, not to mention plenty of running threat in the back three.
However, due to a mixture of slow ruck ball, hesitation and substandard skill-execution at half-back, uncomplicated patterns and one-out runners with poor support lines from those around them, South Africa’s attack was quite stilted for periods of this year’s Rugby Championship. In the below example, we see this happening three times in a row in their first Test against New Zealand:
In this instance, Uzair Cassiem, Jesse Kriel and Francois Hougaard all take the ball head-first into contact on consecutive phases. Their support players are running with little or no depth, to the point that they are almost in line with the ball carrier when the tackle is made. This means that angle of their line to the breakdown makes it next to impossible for them to put in a decisive clear out and generate quick ball for the next phase. Unless you are winning the majority of the collisions (which South Africa did in both of their Tests against Argentina), this type of attack asks few questions of defences.
There was a change of emphasis in the Cape Town Test, with the ball carrier attempting to get their hands free after the tackle more regularly, and the support runners doing a better job of holding their depth and staying a couple of yards behind the ball carrier in anticipation of an offload:
In contrast to the way New Zealand contended easily with the standard one-line of offence in the Albany Test, having multiple layers of attack and passing out of contact put their defence under intense pressure, and the Springboks finished the latter game with more offloads than the All Blacks:
Simon Easterby and Andy Farrell have tough calls to make in terms of how Ireland approach putting the ball carrier to ground. If South Africa continue offloading and Ireland try to go high to wrap their arms around the ball, they risk losing collisions against the bigger Springbok forwards. If they go low around the ankles to halt their momentum instead, it allows the tackled player to get their arms free and put a support runner through a hole. There is always the tactic of double-tackling (one high, one low), but that would leave Ireland short of a defender on the next phase, and the last thing they went to do is give the South African three-quarter line an overlap.
It may be a clichéd thing to say about any team, but Ireland’s chances of winning depend largely on which South African side to turn up: the one that sleepwalked around QBE Stadium in September, losing lineouts and missing tackles with reckless abandon, or the one that pummelled New Zealand all over the park in Cape Town three weeks later.
There are also tricky selection calls to be made, especially in midfield. The injuries to Jared Payne and Garry Ringrose have robbed Joe Schmidt of his first- and second-choice outside centres, so a reshuffle is required. The physicality of Serfontein and Kriel needs to be matched, so the logical choice would to pick two out of Robbie Henshaw, Stuart McCloskey, Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell. However, more in the way of guile may be required to break the South African defence down, and there is a valid argument that Rory Scannell or Luke Marshall should have been included in the squad for the sake of balance.
Of course, Ireland’s midfield balance won’t be a factor if their tight five can’t match their opposite numbers for belligerence in the tackle zone. Devin Toner has been a forceful presence for Leinster this season, while Iain Henderson hit his straps against La Rochelle, and both players have put in superb performances when against South Africa in the past. Cian Healy is on his way back to being the world’s greatest loosehead prop, and Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong have been easing their way back into the season nicely, but John Ryan’s demotion to the Munster bench hasn’t done Ireland any favours.
Niall Scannell’s thumb injury leaves Ireland short of a player who was ready to stake his claim as Ireland’s first-choice hooker, especially with Rory Best only recently returning after a hamstring issue. James Tracy offers ballast around the park, but the fundamentals of hooker play (lineout throwing, scrummaging and hooking) are not his strong suit, and the outcome of this game is going to be decided by how well Ireland cope with the unmerciful physicality and technical excellence of the Springbok pack in the tight phases.