As France emerge as favourites to beat Boks at their own game, change is in the air
World Cup stats highlight the teams’ key difference in a potentially game-deciding category.
In 2020, France’s shift towards a more pragmatic approach reliant on set-piece superiority, offensive defence and razor-sharp tactical kicking was seen as the ultimate compliment to the Springboks.
Few would have predicted that the French would progress to the point where they’d be favourites to beat the Boks at their own game. Yet here we are, on the eve of the highly anticipated Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2023 quarterfinal in Paris on Sunday night, with France in a position to overpower and outkick a team that used the self-same tactics to win the global tournament in 2019.
The stats show how the Boks have moved towards a more balanced game plan over the past 12 months. And yet they may well revisit their strategy to beat the French and secure a place in the semifinals.
Marseille meeting a red herring?
Very little separated these teams when they met in Marseille last November. The game was shaped by Pieter-Steph du Toit’s red card in the 12th minute, but the French also went on to lose a key player when Antoine Dupont was ejected later.
Possession and territory were fairly even, as were the number of carries, rucks won and penalties conceded, as well as the number of tackles and the tackle-completion rate.
France edged the line-out battle, stealing two off the Boks’ throw, and enjoyed more scrummaging opportunities. The game was in the balance until the death, when Deon Fourie copped a yellow card for a cynical offence. France won 30-26.
The biggest difference between the teams was on attack. Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Thomas Ramos kicked for territory – racking up 842 kicking metres.
By contrast, Bok halfbacks Faf de Klerk and Damian Willemse stuck to a more expansive plan. South Africa racked up 189 more running metres than the French, but 325 fewer kick metres.
Afterwards, some wondered whether the Boks would persist with that hybrid style of play at the World Cup, or if the performance in Marseille was nothing more than a red herring ahead of a potential meeting with France in the playoffs.
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Status quo on show in pool stage
There were a number of one-sided scorelines across the recent World Cup pool phase, even when the Boks and other top sides unleashed their second-string combinations against the likes of Romania and Tonga.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see where France and South Africa finished in their respective categories after four World Cup matches, and indeed how these teams differed in their approach to kicking and attack.
Of the eight quarterfinalists, France and South Africa conceded the fewest and second-fewest points in the pool phase. The hosts conceded the fewest penalties, whereas the Boks were the only qualifier not to concede a single yellow or red card.
Again, the attacking and kicking stats show how two teams with similar philosophies are slightly yet significantly different.
France are traditionally known for their attacking intent and flair, but Fabien Galthié and assistants such as defence coach Shaun Edwards and kicking coach Vlok Cilliers have added more layers since joining the coaching staff in 2020.
Over the past four games, France have recorded fewer rucks and passes than any other playoff qualifier. They have topped the list for kick metres, and only England have recorded more kicks from hand.
Traditionally, the Boks have been known for their power and kicking game. But, at this World Cup, they have recorded fewer kicks from hand and fewer kick metres than any other playoff qualifier.
We may yet see the Boks employing more pragmatic tactics in the quarterfinal, and engaging in a kicking duel with the best tactical team in the business.
South Africa certainly have the players to win this particular battle. What’s more, they have the personnel in the back-three to run those kicks back. They aren’t short of tactical options.
The goal-kicking has been a concern for some time. Handré Pollard and Manie Libbok slotted all seven attempts in the final pool match against Tonga, but that flawless performance only boosted the team’s overall success rate at this tournament to 60%.
France’s Thomas Ramos has been the game’s premier goalkicker for the past few seasons. Working alongside Cilliers has clearly paid off. At this tournament, France have slotted 32 goals from 39 attempts for a success rate of 82%.
France have reason to be confident ahead of the quarterfinal, whereas South Africa have everything to prove. The nation will be hoping that they’ve saved the best performance for a game that will be akin to a World Cup final. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.