Springboks’ forward selections in the spotlight following breakdown blowout in Paris
Saturday’s 13-8 Pool B loss to Ireland will focus Bok minds on possible changes to the pack after losing the breakdown battle.
The Springbok coaches face a number of big decisions following an encouraging yet inadequate performance in the marquee pool match against Ireland in Paris.
While the need for a reliable goal-kicker is paramount, South Africa have to address the balance of their pack, their discipline, as well as their overall approach to the breakdown before they face the best teams in the do-or-die stage of the World Cup.
The latter statement needs to be viewed in context, though. The battle at the Stade de France was gladiatorial, and the Boks gave as good as they got at the collisions and breakdowns.
They matched the Irish for passion, speed and physicality, but not for accuracy and composure – and this often compromised their attacking momentum or gifted Ireland multiple penalties and entries into the South African 22.
Plan to stifle Ireland on point
Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus may feel like their plan to stifle Ireland – the most dangerous attacking team on the planet – largely worked.
South Africa competed fiercely at the breakdowns, and then rushed the Irish ball carriers to hit them well behind the gainline. For most of the game, Ireland struggled to generate the necessary ruck speed (typically three seconds or lower) needed to compromise the well-drilled Bok defence.
The Boks have employed this strategy against other attack-minded teams in the past, with great success. When they have controlled the set pieces and contested the breakdowns, they’ve dictated the flow of the contest.
But in Paris on Saturday, the Boks failed to implement that plan consistently and were rarely in control.
They made four times as many dominant tackles as the Irish, and forced a whopping 18 turnovers. But they didn’t dominate the set pieces as some expected they would, and they blew hot and cold in general play, with an outstanding carry or defensive hit often followed by an unforced handling error or breakdown penalty.
The goal-kicking stats are impossible to ignore, with four misses from the tee costing the Boks 11 points. You can understand why so many have called for a change in this department – and the Bok coaches will have to heed those calls sooner rather than later.
While Ireland didn’t produce their best performance, they were helped by the fact that Johnny Sexton and Jack Crowley were flawless in front of goal. Ireland were far from clinical on attack, scoring on just two of their 10 visits to the South African 22. Goal-kicking – and no small measure of grit – allowed them to claim a 13-8 win.
Own worst enemies
Goal-kicking is a major cause for concern, and yet, the Bok coaches may be more disappointed by how the game was managed in general play.
After securing the first kickoff, the Boks took an unnecessary risk and ended up defending an Irish lineout deep in their own 22. They rallied to repel Ireland for the better part of 20 minutes.
A lineout steal was followed by handling error. A breakdown penalty allowed them to exit, but then they conceded a breakdown penalty in the subsequent passage of play. This pattern persisted throughout the game.
The Boks conceded a total of 11 penalties – many of those at the breakdowns. The timing of those penalties, however, was significant.
The Boks won a lineout turnover in the eighth minute, then conceded a penalty after the ball was booted down field. They had a scrum in the middle of the field in the 16th minute, and after securing possession, conceded a penalty at the breakdown.
Damian de Allende made a powerful carry in the 22nd minute, but then got stripped in the tackle. They won another scrum towards the end of the first half, but that attacking march ended in yet another breakdown penalty against them. The second half continued in much the same manner.
Other World Cup title contenders such as France and New Zealand would have watched the game in Paris with interest.
The Boks provided the blueprint with how to beat Ireland – although the South Africans fell short of winning due to the inaccurate implementation of their plan. Likewise, Ireland showed how to disrupt and frustrate the Boks, and the Boks themselves showcased their weakness from the kicking tee.
Keeping key players, strategies back?
Did the Bok coaches get the selections right for this game?
Before the game, so much was made about the seven-one split on the bench. It came as a surprise to see the Boks using their maul so sparingly – just twice over the course of 80 minutes – and they weren’t particularly impressive at the breakdown in the final 15 minutes when all of their top fetchers – Deon Fourie, Marco van Staden, Kwagga Smith – were on the park.
It was always going to be a risk to include seven forwards on the bench. The Boks were fortunate that there were no serious backline injuries, as this may have necessitated a disruptive reshuffle and possibly a situation where a forward had to cover for a back. It’s debatable whether the extra forward made a difference against Ireland, and ultimately whether the risk is worth it going forward.
Duane Vermeulen – one of the senior players in the squad, and a specialist in areas such as breakdown, lineout and maul – watched the game from the coaches’ box.
A few eyebrows were raised after Vermeulen and Willie le Roux were completely omitted from the matchday 23, and it’s fair to say that the vastly experienced pair may have made a difference, particularly in the latter stages. By then, leaders such as Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth and Bongi Mbonambi had all been replaced.
Will Vermeulen and Le Roux return for the playoffs? And have the Bok coaches been holding something back, in terms of specific plays and tactics?
Perhaps. The fact that they mauled from the lineout on just two occasions against Ireland suggests as much.
The inconsistencies at the scrum and breakdown, of course, were not planned, and neither was the high penalty count.
Ireland deserve credit for making life difficult for the Boks, but there is much to be learnt from how the South African players reacted to that specific challenge. Those lessons will undoubtedly shape the team’s preparations in the coming weeks. DM