Boks ideally placed following mixed performance against Scotland that didn’t reveal their full hand
The Boks revealed only glimpses of their full gameplan when beating Scotland in their RWC 2023 Pool B opener at the weekend.
There was a lot to like about the Springboks’ performance in the 18-3 win against Scotland in Marseille on Sunday. The heavies produced their most dominant scrummaging display to date, while the breakdown and overall defensive effort were relentless.
The Manie Libbok kick-pass that resulted in a try for Kurt-Lee Arendse showcased the Boks’ awesome attacking threat, as did the explosive running of Cheslin Kolbe and Grant Williams in the dying stages of the contest.
The Boks have played a more balanced brand of rugby under Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, and — as the 2023 stats confirm — have ramped up their attack in recent months. They are ideally placed to push for a second-consecutive World Cup title.
Ideally placed, yet no reason for complacency
Erasmus and Nienaber — who have been working tirelessly to eliminate any form of complacency in the lead-up to the World Cup defence — will be happy with the outcome in Marseille.
The performance against Scotland was encouraging, and the win has all but secured South Africa’s place in the playoffs. Yet, there is much to rectify ahead of a showdown with Ireland on 23 September, and the coaches will have good reason to push the players hard in the coming days.
The next game against Romania in Bordeaux will provide the second-string players with an opportunity to make their mark in France, but as a group, the Boks will be looking forward to a potential Pool B decider against the No 1-ranked team in the world.
Scrum more potent than ever
The Boks won the key battles at the set pieces and breakdowns last Sunday, and this allowed them to control the gainline. Apart from the two penalties conceded at the scrum at the end of the first half, South Africa were dominant in this game-shaping area,
Since returning to the Bok set-up in 2018, Erasmus has placed an emphasis on fitness, and particularly the fitness of the front-row players. While the starters and the reserves have been assigned different roles in general play, they all have been tasked with dominating this set piece.
In more recent months, the Bok pack has earned more rewards for this dominance, particularly at the scrum. Their ability to adapt to the opposition and the officials — by presenting the referee with “a picture of dominance” — has contributed to their success in this area as much as their raw power and collective experience.
The Boks earned four scrum penalties in the 52-16 win against Wales in Cardiff and four against New Zealand in the record 35-7 victory at Twickenham. Most recently, they forced a whopping six scrum penalties in the 18-3 win over Scotland in Marseille.
It’s no secret that the Boks are looking to exploit their traditional strengths by playing set piece to set piece. A scrum penalty inevitably leads to a lineout, which provides the green and gold juggernaut with the option of setting a maul — another South African strength — or bringing their underrated back division into play.
In short, scrum dominance allows the Boks to control the territorial battle as well as the flow of the game. As seen in the recent wins against Wales and New Zealand, this set-piece success has laid the platform for a series of attacking opportunities.
Recent results and scorelines suggest that they are on the right track, even though they have spurned a large number of opportunities — more on this in a minute, as it’s a big work-on ahead of the all-important Ireland clash.
Defensive plan on point, despite missed tackles
Scotland pride themselves on their attack — and boast the world’s best attacking flyhalf in Finn Russell. On Sunday, however, the Boks negated these strengths by winning the set pieces and breakdowns, and by smashing the Scotland ball-carriers well behind the gainline.
Defenders on the outside, such as No 13 Jesse Kriel, flooded the passing lanes with the aim of shutting down Russell’s options. The Boks did enough to keep one of the world’s best attacking teams tryless, and to limit the opposition to just three points.
South Africa conceded four tries over the course of their title-winning campaign in 2019, and if they maintain the standard that was set in Marseille, they may well match or better that incredible 2019 record over the course of the 2023 campaign.
Nienaber — who served as the team’s defence coach at the previous tournament in Japan — will be thrilled by how they’ve started in France.
Again, credit must go to the forwards for providing the platform at the scrum and breakdown. On Sunday, the Boks completed 18 turnovers — a phenomenal stat that speaks to their power as well as their decision-making and accuracy.
The Boks were asked to make 91 tackles and finished with a tackle completion of 72% — which seems well below par. That ratio must be viewed in context, though. While the South Africans rushing off the line occasionally missed their mark, they succeeded in rattling the Scottish playmakers and compromising the flow of the attack.
The performance was akin to the display against Ireland in Dublin last November. The Boks were dominant during the early stages of that game, thanks in large to their rabid breakdown showing and relentless rush defence. They should employ similar tactics in the World Cup meeting with the Irish next Saturday.
Attacking conversion rate must improve
The Boks would do well to reflect on the previous loss in Dublin ahead of the next match-up in Paris. Last November, the Boks created several chances to score tries and points, but failed to cash in. Those misses cost them in a tight contest, which ended 19-16 in favour of the hosts.
The attack has improved a great deal since then. Thanks to the improvements up front and the backing of more versatile players such as Libbok, Arendse and others, the Boks are creating more chances than ever.
Unfortunately, they’re still struggling to convert the bulk of their chances into points.
The improvements in the departments of defence, tactical kicking and aerial contesting have all contributed to a greater potency of attack in recent months. Since getting schooled in these departments in the 35-20 defeat to New Zealand during the Rugby Championship, the Boks have delivered sharper performances in these areas.
They’re also playing with more balance, and haven’t kicked more than 27 times in a match this season. For context, France put boot to ball on 44 occasions in the World Cup opener last Friday, while New Zealand kicked 39 times.
Still, the Boks should be finishing more opportunities once they have played themselves into enemy territory.
During the 2023 Rugby Championship, they converted 60% of their visits to the opposition 22 into points. They were far sharper against Wales, scoring on eight out of 12 visits to the red zone.
The result against New Zealand at Twickenham will go down in history, and yet, one wonders how much damage they may have inflicted had they converted more than five out of 12 opportunities in the All Blacks’ 22. South Africa dominated Scotland in most areas last Sunday but scored on just two out of six visits to the opposition 22.
Nienaber has highlighted the need for a better conversion rate. Last year in Dublin, they converted only four out of 10 red-zone visits into points, and lost the game by three points.
Ireland will present a greater challenge than Scotland at the set pieces and breakdowns. While their attack is formidable, their defence doesn’t give much away. The Boks would do well to create opportunities at the Stade de France next week, and to translate those rare chances into points.
Wayward goal-kicking a pressing issue
Libbok has proved that he has the ability to win big matches and titles — either via a game-breaking attacking play or through a nerveless kick at goal. The Stormers flyhalf famously rebounded from a couple of early misses in the 2022 United Rugby Championship final to slot the kick that clinched the title.
More recently, in his capacity as the Springboks’ first-choice flyhalf and goal-kicker, he has shown that he can recover from a poor start to make important contributions.
The overall stats do highlight his inconsistency, though — and that of South Africa since the dependable Handré Pollard was sidelined in late 2022. In the seven matches played this season, the Boks have averaged just 60% from the kicking tee, and have left as many as 43 points on the park.
Libbok has averaged 63% in 2023, and missed three of his five attempts against Scotland last Sunday. Faf de Klerk, the back-up kicker, also pushed an attempt wide in that fixture.
Again, one wonders what the margin of victory may have been if South Africa had been more accurate in front of goal. As it was, they spurned a total of 11 points from the tee.
The Bok coaches and players have rallied to Libbok’s defence, and rightly so. The attack-minded player has brought a lot to the team’s approach since making his debut last November.
The coaches would have been satisfied with the no-look kick-pass that resulted in a try for Arendse this past Sunday. To date, Libbok’s positive contributions have largely overshadowed his mistakes.
Those missed kicks had no impact on the result in Marseille. However, there will come a time — perhaps next week in Paris, or in the playoffs — where the team’s success will hinge on a sharper showing in front of goal.
While there is no reason to panic just yet, and while the player has already shown that he has the potential to slot important goals under pressure, the coaches should be working closely with Libbok to address his consistency ahead of the clash against Ireland, and the playoffs that follow. DM