Solid defence no longer strong point
SA’s once-tight teams have been leaking tries, giving new Bok coach a major headache
As Rassie Erasmus’s tenure as Springbok coach moves from a concept to reality with his first Test as head coach less than a fortnight away‚ one aspect of the local game must have him worried stiff – defence.
Springbok and South African rugby has many flaws, but generally solid defence was one area that could be expected to create problems for the opposition. But not anymore.
After round 14 of the Super Rugby competition‚ the Sharks (352)‚ Bulls (350)‚ Stormers (356) and Lions (369) have conceded 350 points or more. The only teams that have conceded more are the Sunwolves (421) and the Blues (377).
Contrast that to the top New Zealand and Australian sides — Crusaders (223)‚ Hurricanes (213)‚ Chiefs (242)‚ Highlanders (289)‚ Waratahs (274) and Brumbies (296) — and it is clear the South African teams are way behind defensively.
At the same stage in 2017‚ the Lions had only conceded 251 points and the Sharks 266. But both teams had not played New Zealand opposition because of the tournament structure.
If you go back to 2016‚ when the Lions and Sharks faced New Zealand teams in pool matches, they had conceded only 284 and 193 points respectively. In 2017 the Stormers and Bulls, up against New Zealand opposition in pool matches, struggled, conceding 354 and 370 points after round 14. So they have remained consistently poor.
In general the graph has gone downwards for South African teams. At national level the past two years have also been worrying in terms of defence.
From 1891 to 2015 the Boks historically conceded 1.53 tries per game. In the post-isolation era from 1992 to 2015 they conceded 484 tries in 278 games – or 1.75 tries per game.
In 2016 and 2017 the Boks conceded 68 tries in 25 Tests‚ or 2.72 per game. That is a huge increase‚ which coincides with a rapid decline in Super Rugby defence as well.
New Bok defence coach Jacques Nienaber‚ who was the mastermind behind the Stormers defence when they were the most miserly in the competition from 2010 to 2013, will have his work cut out.
With little time to prepare‚ defence is going to have to come up to speed quickly. "Our biggest focus is to assess what type of skill sets we have to work with‚" Nienaber said. "If we have out-and-out ball poachers [such as Malcolm Marx before his injury] then you have to adapt your system to give them windows of opportunity to get to rucks first.
"It you have a Richie McCaw-type player and put him at the front of the line-out and tell him to defend the blind side‚ you’d be wasting him. It would be better to take that player out of the line-out and put him on the inside of the flyhalf even if it means you contest the line-out with fewer players. You will get more purchase by having him hitting rucks first, as often as possible."
Winning the breakdown battle almost always means winning the defensive battle.