Ireland have achieved some remarkable things since coming good under Andy Farrell and co. against England in March of 2021, but there remains a question mark over whether their attack-minded style of play works against a team who have a bigger pack, a suffocating defence and an aggressive territorial kicking game.
Their recent victories over England came at a time when the Red Rose were at a low ebb under Eddie Jones, and they were soundly beaten by the same opposition twice in a row when they were in strong form in 2020. They have come up short against France every time they have played them since 2019, and due to COVID, they have haven’t faced South Africa in five years.
In that context, Ireland’s meeting with the Springboks this Saturday is a crucial point in their development in this RWC cycle, not only because it is a precursor to their pool clash with the same opponent in Paris next year, but because it represents an opportunity to finally jump the hurdle against a type of foe that has gotten the better of them since their 2018 peak under Joe Schmidt.
Ireland’s other fixtures in this series don’t exactly pale into insignificance; the All Blacks XV clash will be an important squad-building exercise, the Fiji game will test Ireland’s second-choice players against a team who have been more than competitive against Tier 1 opposition lately, and the Australia Test will push their defence to its limits as well as seeing how they fare against a side who are dark horses to lift the Webb Ellis Cup next year, but how Farrell’s team cope with the Springboks will tell us a lot about where they stand going into a World Cup year.
“I Admire Its Purity”
After a dismal two years of playing a muddled brand of rugby under Allister Coetzee, the Springboks moved towards a simpler approach to the game when Rassie Erasmus took over. It has been criticised for not being overly exciting to watch, and although there isn’t a great deal of interplay between forwards and backs (outside of the standard pull-back passes and the occasional deployment of Pieter-Steph du Toit or Siya Kolisi in wider channels), it’s brutally effective when it works:
There’s very little in the way of subterfuge or misdirection to it, and it’s only when you compare it to New Zealand’s footwork and turn of pace when they were going through the forwards in the same fixture as the above example that you realise how direct it is.
There’s not much you can do to stop this from a tactical perspective besides fronting up and maintaining a high level of intensity in contact. Ireland could go down the road of double-tackling, but South Africa demonstrated in the Rugby Championship that they are capable of moving the ball wide when it suits them in spite of their brutish physicality up front, so Ireland won’t want to get caught short of numbers defensively against them, either.
Relentless, punishing carries feed into South Africa’s kicking strategy, too. They routinely work a small zone of the pitch not far from the touch-line with a couple of narrow, one-out carries to drag in defenders, before launching steeplers towards the other side of the field into the space between the opposition winger and their full-back once they are isolated:
Ireland need to be wary of this not only because Hugo Keenan is short of match fitness, but because England got a decent return from using similar tactics against them back in March:
The possibility of 50/22 kicks from South Africa make keeping the backfield well-covered a priority as well, and with Garry Ringrose’s superb defensive decision-making at 13, Ireland can afford to take a player out of the front line in order to assist Keenan in dealing with aerial bombardment.
The maul is going to have to be a main focus for Ireland, as South Africa are difficult to contend with in this department when they get set and motoring. The Springboks favour a long, narrow build with a slight arrow-shaped narrowing at the front, and they shear towards the touch-line as soon as the maul forms, making it tough for their opponent to regroup and form a new counter-maul in a congested space when they start making ground:
The All Blacks learned from the instance above, providing a good example at the very next lineout of how to nullify South Africa before they can build up a head of steam. In the below example, as soon as Lood de Jager comes to ground, the New Zealand pack first shove aggressively from outside to in to push the Springboks away from the zone they want to attack before coming back around the front to halt their momentum:
It gets called back for a crooked throw from Joseph Dweba anyway, and New Zealand definitely push the boundaries with regards to coming in from the side, but it’s still an intelligent, effective ploy that Ireland could do worse than try to replicate.
On top of their kicking out of hand and dominant forward play, South Africa’s other major strength is their defence. Ever since Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber took charge in 2017, the Springboks have used an aggressive, high blitz that makes life difficult for opposition attacking systems:
Ireland will need to match South Africa for physicality in the collisions to be competitive this Saturday, but if they are going to win, then they will have to find and exploit space somewhere in the Springboks’ defensive setup.
This is where variety is going to be vital for Ireland. Repeatedly putting the ball through the hands would be ill-advised, as it will just provide the South African defenders with opportunities to make smart defensive reads and big hits behind the gain line, which will energise them no end. New Zealand opted for long skip passes to put players into space outside the edge defender in Johannesburg back in August, but that tactic brings with it the risk of intercepted passes.
Kicking instead should be a hallmark of Ireland’s attacking play this weekend because a blitz defence relies on being able to predict what the opposition are going to do and where, and if Ireland put boot to ball with different types of kicks, it will force the South African defenders to sit back on their heels a bit instead of racing forward every phase, and the half-seconds that this can accumulate every phase over the course of the game could well end up being the difference between Ireland unlocking the Springbok defence or being closed down by it.
A prominent feature of the South African defensive system is the 13 shooting up and in to close down opposition backline movements, with the intention being to cut off or stifle the supply of possession beyond midfield:
While this is highly effective at shutting down the space available to the opposition outside centre and pressurising their pass to the winger/full-back, it does leave the space between where the Springbok 13 started off and the winger unguarded for a few seconds until the winger adjusts:
I think it’s no coincidence that we have seen more kicking out of hand from Ireland’s centres this season, and they would be best-served by using flat cross-field kicks and long, scraping grubbers to get the ball into the space marked out in red above because there is space to be found in this area against South Africa:
I wouldn’t expect Ireland to move away from their multi-phase attack altogether, though, particularly given how well they have fine-tuned it this year. In terms of where the point of attack should be when they do keep ball in hand, they would be wise to attack the blind side, especially close to the breakdown, as this has been something of a weakness for South Africa in 2022.
Attacking the narrow side exposes the lateral movement of the Springboks’ heavyset forwards, and they struggled to deal with short-side overloads from Argentina in the Rugby Championship:
The Pumas also made brilliant use of Joe Schmidt’s outside-inside move, and in doing so highlighted how slow some of the Springbok forwards are to get up off the deck or to turn back infield if the opposition throw an inside pass:
Under Mike Catt’s stewardship, Ireland have turned into past masters at attacking this space, using zig-zag patterns to attack the open side first before overloading the short side to good effect, and over time, their players have developed an excellent understanding of when to pass and when to carry in these situations, as well as outstanding skill execution in confined spaces:
The other aspect of Ireland’s attack that is likely to cause South Africa problems is the delayed arcing runs from their backs from behind whoever is at first-receiver. This idea of ‘stacking’ runners in a vertical line before they drift around to the outside and separate is something a lot of teams do with ball in hand nowadays, and Ireland have found no end of joy with it:
An effective defence is predicated on being able to predict what the opposition are going to do and having enough numbers to cover it, and as shown in the above examples, these delayed arcing runs make both challenging because they change the picture that the defence see at the last second while also creating a late overlap.
Beating an opponent with a bigger pack requires high levels of passion and intensity, but equal amounts of control and focus, too. Playing against the South African clubs on a regular basis in the URC has been hugely beneficial for the Irish provinces because they are now more adept at defeating ‘big’ teams after learning some harsh lessons towards the end of last season, and it’s only a matter of time before this translates to the national side. If Ireland can be patient and accurate in everything they do this Saturday, their game plan can really trouble the Springboks, but that’s easier said than done.
The second-quarter drop in concentration has been a recurring theme of Ireland’s performances this year, and it’s a frustrating habit that will need to be eradicated if they are to win this Saturday, and build towards being competitive at next year’s World Cup. If Ireland are to break new ground in France next year, they will have to beat a team with a heavier pack at least once, and getting a win over the Springboks this weekend could give them the confidence to do just that.
Despite this being his last season, there has been no let up in Johnny Sexton’s competitive streak, and if he can drive those around him as he has done his whole career and keep testing the South African defence in different ways, then they could easily become exasperated and lose their discipline as the game progresses. The Springboks’ performances in 2022 have been wildly inconsistent, and while that is often the case with southern hemisphere sides the year before a World Cup, Rassie Erasmus’ exploits in the media have drawn the wrong kind of attention towards his team.
Anyone involved in a professional team complaining about referees openly in the media is shooting themselves in the foot because ultimately, they don’t answer to players or coaches, so it’s not going to alter how they do their job. What it will do is sour their attitude towards your team; at the end of the day, they are human and endless criticism is hard not to take personally, and it won’t go unnoticed by their colleagues. This is why I think so many marginal calls have gone against the Springboks lately, and their players aren’t doing themselves any favours by boiling over in recent fixtures, either.
If South Africa have enough decisions go against them, and Ireland can play at a pace that their visitors generally try to avoid, a statement win over the reigning World Cup champions is well within the realms of possibility. This Irish team have constantly been pushing the boundaries with their exciting style of play and results against illustrious opponents for 18 months now, but knocking over the current holders of the Webb Ellis Cup could prove to be the springboard for another milestone achievement in France next year.