RWC 2023

Forward-thinking Boks have a clear game plan of finesse, intelligence and brute force

Forward-thinking Boks have a clear game plan of finesse, intelligence and brute force
The Springboks’ Kwagga Smith (centre) scores a try during the Rugby Test match between New Zealand and South Africa in London on 25 August 2023. (Photo: Neil Hall / EPA-EFE)

The dour Boks are happily using smoke and mirrors to confound everyone. What they’re doing might appear hazy from the outside, but inside their bubble there is only clarity about their approach.

The Springboks’ reputation as a dour, conservative, forward-dominated team hasn’t arisen out of the ether. It is grounded in some fact and evidence, but it has also been overplayed to suit a narrative, usually driven by opponents and media based in foreign countries.

As ever, the truth lies somewhere in between because, yes, South Africa has always prided itself on producing strong forwards. But there hasn’t been a successful rugby team in history that’s not built on a powerful pack.

Recent New Zealand vintages might have included some of the best backline players ever to cut a line, but they have all been underpinned by a supreme pack of forwards.

For every Dan Carter there has been a Richie McCaw. For every Jonah Lomu there was a Robin Brooke or Olo Brown.

England’s 2003 World Cup winners – still the only northern hemisphere side to lift the Webb Ellis Cup – had the best pack in the world at the time. Flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson was able to weave his magic on the foundation Martin Johnson’s pack built for him.

The current French side, favourites to win this year’s World Cup on home soil, are only favourites because they have built a forward unit good enough to challenge the best.

Scrumhalf Antoine Dupont might be the best player in the world, but his greatness has been erected on the back of men such as Cyril Baille, Cameron Woki and Grégory Alldritt.

This week, when Bok coach Jacques Nienaber unveiled his team to meet Ireland in a crucial Pool B encounter, the rugby world gasped. Seven forwards on the bench and only one backline player. Immediately pundits started proclaiming that the Boks were going to try to beat Ireland, the world’s No 1 team, with power alone.

Springbok forward Deon Fourie in action during the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France. (Photo: Jan Kruger / Getty Images)

But let’s pause for a second and look at the team. Two of those seven forwards – Deon Fourie and Kwagga Smith – are small by modern standards. They are smaller than most centres and many wings. But they bring unique skills.

Smith is a great ball carrier and smart link player. Yes, he’s excellent at the breakdown, but that is more to do with his technique and attitude than his innate physicality.

Fourie is similar in that he never gives less than everything on the field and constantly gets into battles for the ball on the deck, or tucks into rucks to stem the flow of the opposition ball.

Taking this theme further, the Boks’ three most dangerous weapons – wings Kurt-Lee Arendse and Cheslin Kolbe and flyhalf Manie Libbok – are not physically big men. What they possess is vision, speed, skill and the mentality to stay in the fight. They are the complete opposite of the caricatured Springbok rugby player.

Others such as Cobus Reinach and Faf de Klerk fall into this category too, as does the injured Lukhanyo Am.

Essentially, pegging this Bok team to suit a narrative that has only a small basis in reality is a mistake rugby fans and writers might make, but one opposition coaches would be foolish to buy.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby World Cup 2023

Interesting times

We could split hairs over game plans and argue that the Boks’ attacking approach is not as sophisticated as Ireland’s or the All Blacks’, but different tactical approaches don’t automatically mean more skilled.

That would be oversimplifying things because even when they used an avalanche of contestable kicks to win the 2019 title, it was underpinned by near perfect execution, athleticism and no shortage of skill.

And that brings us to a wider view of the Boks. Has there ever been a more interesting time in South African rugby?

Rassie Erasmus and Nie­naber have spent six years finding answers to questions the rugby establishment didn’t even know were questions yet.

They’ve ripped up traditional norms and become the game’s leading lights (excuse the pun) because they’ve made the Springboks the most unpredictable team in the world. I can hear the guffaws now. Boks unpredictable? But who can honestly say exactly what the Boks are going to do in each game?

They play wide, they play narrow, they kick, they maul. They spend long periods without ball, comfortable tackling; they sometimes attack scrums and sometimes sit back.

They kick for goal from difficult field positions and then kick penalties to touch when there is a gift three points on offer.

Blunt instruments no more

No one outside their team room knows what and who they are any more. That old trope of the Boks just being blunt instruments has been buried in the RasNaber era.

The Boks are close to the ­complete package, yet they are happy to feed the narrative that they are dour.

There is almost zero chance that Ian Foster expected a seven-one split between forwards and backs at Twickenham last month.

Because that decision was supposedly enforced thanks to a late injury to Willie le Roux, the All Blacks had no time to come up with a strategy to combat it.

Ireland coach Andy Farrell probably didn’t expect a seven-one split from the Boks either, but he at least has had a few days to process the gauntlet thrown down and come up with a solution.

But that’s the beauty of what RasNaber have reignited, and what Springbok rugby, when at its best, has always brought – finesse and intelligence in addition to brute force.

South Africa has routinely had players with a high rugby IQ – Hennie Muller, HO de Villiers, Naas Botha, Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield and many others spring to mind.

They haven’t always had the coaches to mine the wells of that rugby intelligence properly, but when they have, they’ve been virtually unstoppable.

RasNaber have elevated the cerebral side of the Boks’ game to unknown levels without sacrificing the basics such as a powerful set piece, strong defence and supreme fitness.

They have created a rugby garden where natural gifts can flourish, where players’ backgrounds or skin colour and school ties matter far less than what they bring to make the team better.

The dour Boks are happily using smoke and mirrors to confound everyone. What they’re doing might appear hazy from the outside, but inside their bubble there is only clarity about their approach.

They will happily play the part of rugby Neanderthals if it means opponents keep overlooking how skilled and effective they really are. In fact, they will actively en­­courage it. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Bonzo Gibbon says:

    Good article, and a good counter to all the tosh one sees from rugby journos here in the UK. There is a trope about Boks winning just because they are big. I think it goes right back to amateur days when there was some truth in it. If you look at the official stats, the Irish team are actually on average taller and heavier than the Boks. The Irish forward pack is lighter, but only by 2kg, so pretty much the same. The Irish forwards are just as big and physical as the Boks. And if you look at the so-called nuke squad, there are three relatively small fetchers. However, if the Boks win, the British media will be full of words like “giants” and “behemoths” to describe the Boks. Yes, the Boks do have great physical commitment, but their true strength, as you have rightly pointed out, is in innovation and tactical nous, and finding the right players to implement their game plan.

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      Spot on! The Aussies put a pack out in their opening match that was 960kg – I don’t think we’ve ever come close to that! And their backs are huge too. You pick up a lot of resentment in the UK media, above and below the line about the Boks and the bulk of it is based on inaccurate pish. Really hope we batter Ireland tonight, with all six tries being scored by the wings!

  • Unfortunately, Rassie & Co made a huge error not having a specialist kicker, 7:1 wasn’t exactly a roaring success either , less time changing red and green light-bulbs and more time on kicking skills would have been far more productive

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