South African kicking guru Vlok Cilliers at the heart of France’s rugby revolution
South African kicking coach Vlok Cilliers is using his expertise to turn France into RWC 2023 favourites.
France have added several layers to their game since coach Fabien Galthié came to power in 2020. The appointment of former Bulls and Stormers kicking coach Vlok Cilliers has transformed rugby’s great entertainers into a more complete attacking unit that can win consistently and challenge for major titles.
France beat England in Paris recently to claim their first Six Nations Grand Slam title since 2010. The result marked Les Bleus’ eighth win in a row, and there’s reason to believe that they will go into a highly anticipated meeting with the Springboks this November as favourites.
Indeed, there’s certainly enough evidence to suggest that Galthié’s charges will challenge the traditional superpowers and push for a first World Cup title in 2023.
France a sharper version of Boks
Romain Ntamack’s audacious counterattack from his own try line in last year’s Test against the All Blacks brought the rugby world to its feet. What many experts noted in the aftermath, and in the subsequent Six Nations tournament, is that France’s attacking success is linked to the pressure generated by the players at the scrums and line-outs, and through their aggressive defence and masterful kicking strategy.
France ranked second in the Six Nations for most tries scored (17), and second for the fewest tries conceded (seven). They averaged more kicking metres (a whopping 1,042m) than any other side and ranked second for kicks per match (30).
While scrumhalf Antoine Dupont showcased his running threat, more should be made about the fact that the France scrumhalf completed the second-most kicks overall (54) — after Italy flyhalf Paolo Garbisi.
One of the game’s most dangerous attacking players is also one of its most prolific kickers. As Cilliers suggests, it’s a sign of the times, as modern players require a wider skill set to make an impact on an opposition defence.
Kicking outdated mindsets into touch
At this point, many SA readers may be rolling their eyes. Generations of players in this country have been brought up to keep the ball in hand. Kicking is viewed — at least in many public and amateur domains — as the antithesis of attack.
In the professional game, however, various kicks are seen and used as weapons against otherwise impregnable defensive systems.
Cilliers was capped by the Springboks and the SA Sevens side in the 1990s, and went on to become the country’s first specialist kicking coach with the Bulls in 2004.
He laughs when he’s asked why so many rugby fans feel that grubbers and box kicks are the bane of the sport.
“Maybe the general public doesn’t appreciate how good defensive systems are [and why teams opt to kick],” he tells DM168. “No team is going to make three passes and score a try on the outside. Those days are long gone.
“When players decide to kick, they kick for a purpose — and that is to gain territory or create opportunities for their attack.”
Fertile ground for fresh ideas
Galthié missed out on selection for the France team ahead of the 1995 World Cup and ended up playing for Western Province in Cape Town. It was there that he met Cilliers, and the halfbacks developed a strong relationship on and off the field.
More than 20 years later, Galthié and Cilliers reunited, first at French club Toulon, and then at Test level.
“When I left the Stormers in 2017, I did a lot of consulting with clubs in France and Japan,” Cilliers says. “Juandré Kruger, the former Bulls and Bok lock who played for Toulon, mentioned that Fabien was looking to reconnect.
“I went and worked with Toulon for two years, helping them with their kicking game. When Fabien was fired, we stayed connected. He was appointed as the new France coach ahead of the 2020 season, and he asked me if I would like to join him.
“It was a no-brainer for me at the time, as I have always wanted to work with an international team, and I have always wanted to go to a World Cup. I look back now, and it’s one of the best decisions I have ever made.
“Each coach brings something different to the table,” he adds. “Defence coach Shaun Edwards has his own way of doing things. I also have my flavour. But we are committed to working towards one solution… Fabien is the frontrunner in that respect; he always makes sure the message is clear.”
When Cilliers was first appointed in 2020, he told The Telegraph that he felt like a kid in a toy store. Galthié had assembled a strong squad bursting with talent, and Cilliers believed that the likes of Dupont, Ntamack and others could make as big an impact with the boot as they did with ball in hand.
“It was the best time to join France,” he says now, some two-and-a-half years into his contract.
“The team was in transition back in 2020, and everyone was keen to improve, knowing that the country would host the World Cup in 2023. From the outset, I could see how talented the players were. What made the players special was their hunger for success, and their willingness to take new ideas on board.
“We worked really hard in the first two years. Things didn’t always go our way, but the players kept faith in the process.
“In 2021, we lost a few close games due to one or two bad decisions under pressure. That was the case when we went down to England at Twickenham.
“This year, however, we closed out those narrow matches, as you saw in the 13-9 win against Wales in Cardiff. I’m not saying that we are where we want to be just yet, but we have improved.”
France the team to beat in 2022
France in their current guise bear a striking resemblance to the Boks — a team with a world-class set piece, defence and kicking game. When asked if France have overtaken the Boks in the latter discipline, Cilliers suggests that Les Bleus are still a work in progress.
“The All Blacks have an excellent kicking game that puts a lot of top teams under pressure. The Boks employ a high-pressure approach, and it has brought them a lot of success. Ireland and England are also up there with the top kicking teams. I wouldn’t say France is at the top, but we are definitely getting closer in that department.”
This is but one of the reasons why they are viewed by many as the form team in Test rugby. Bok No 8 Duane Vermeulen told DM168 recently that Les Bleus will be “the team to beat in 2022”.
More and more people are crediting Les Bleus for their progress in the less glamorous areas of the game, and men like Edwards and Cilliers are receiving their due.
Super Rugby treble to a Six Nations triumph
The rugby world has certainly changed since 2004, when Cilliers joined the Bulls as SA’s first specialist kicking coach.
“Some people told the head coach Heyneke Meyer that he was wasting the Bulls’ money by hiring a full-time kicking coach,” Cilliers recalls.
“My role was very different back then. I concentrated on helping the individual kickers with their technique and execution. Over the years, that role has had to evolve as opposition defences have become stronger and harder to breach.
“We’ve got to the point where attacking sides aren’t going to run through a team after four or five phases because the defence is just too well organised. Many top teams are using their kicking game to create space and scoring opportunities. These days, the game is a lot more like chess.”
Meyer will go down in history as one of SA’s most successful coaches, having built the Bulls into a team that won three Super Rugby titles as well as several Currie Cup trophies. Many of the Bulls players, however, have lauded Cilliers for the part he played in developing a kicking game that was ahead of its time.
“I was lucky to be at the Bulls during that golden era,” Cilliers says. “They had world-class kicking talents in Fourie du Preez and Morné Steyn at No 9 and 10, and they had world-class wingers in Bryan Habana and Akona Ndungane, who had the ability to chase and compete for the ball in the air. Zane Kirchner was a brilliant kicking fullback with great aerial skills, too. It was a special group.
“Dupont, Ntamack and others in the France squad possess a lot of the same qualities, and I believe they can go on to become the very best,” he points out. “Like the Bulls players of the 2000s, these French players have the dedication and hunger to complement their talent. That’s what is needed to succeed on a regular basis.”
Showdown with Boks a litmus test
One wonders what the Boks might have achieved had Cilliers joined the management ranks. The South African national side hasn’t employed a full-time kicking coach since 2015.
Perhaps this is why the Boks have underperformed in this department – and on attack in general – in recent times. While their strategy is sound, the technique and execution of the kickers could do with some sharpening.
Cilliers reiterates that he has no regrets about his decision to join the France coaching team in 2020.
“I go where the opportunities are, and where I am wanted,” he says. “This opportunity with France will allow me to realise my dream of working with a top team at a World Cup.”
There will be a lot of talk about Cilliers’s influence ahead of the showdown between France and the Boks this November. These two giants could meet again in the quarterfinals of the 2023 World Cup.
Over the past two years France have beaten Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and all of the top northern nations. Cilliers confirms that Les Bleus are looking at the next game against the Boks as a litmus test.
“The Boks are the world champs and the No 1 side in the world. It’s going to be a massive battle,” Cilliers says.
“The Boks are extremely physical, and have a really strong defence and kicking game. We’re looking forward to playing them because we want to see where we stand.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.