To say that the Springboks lost to 14 passionate Irishmen isn’t entirely accurate. It wasn’t so much Irish fervour – although they did scramble and fight for every inch of Newlands’ turf – as much as Irish nous and rugby sense that got them home. Nous and rugby sense are not phrases we would use to describe Allister Coetzee’s inaugural class of 2016.
Ultimately the blame lies with Coetzee. In the corporate world a CEO is responsible for his company’s performance, no excuses. Allister is running the Springbok enterprise so the loss is on him. But here’s the thing. If we want to consider ourselves shareholders, and if we want to ask “tough” questions, then we must also ask the right questions. If we’re truly interested in understanding why the Boks’ lost then we must be prepared to shelve our anger for a moment and look at what happened holistically. And when we do that it’s clear the players did Allister no favours.
We’ve looked at the game from a few different angles and this is what we’ve come up with with.
THE SPRINGBOK ATTACK
Willie le Roux would have felt like a piñata this week the way the media whacked him for his lateral running and poor decision-making. Look, at times the guy did play like he had a head full of papier-mâché, but again, there’s more to the story if we really are interested in getting to the bottom of why the Boks lost.
One defence of Willie is simply this: there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with running laterally. What Willie was looking for was someone to go against the grain and straighten. Or, god forbid, perhaps even two players who might angle in off his shoulder or cut back inside. Willie’s lateral runs dragged the Irish defence across the field; what he wanted was someone to take advantage of that. Willie did it too often, he sometimes took away everybody’s space and his miss-out passes were poorly executed, but it’s important to see his actions in the right light.
The Springboks’ main failure in this match was their inability to use the space they created on the outside. Rugby Analytics’ graph below shows just how many overlaps they made (albeit against 14 men). Incredibly, the Boks butchered most of these chances, and while miss-passes and drifting were big culprits, so was poor realignment, where players didn’t work hard enough in width and depth to become viable receivers.
This picture below encapsulates it beautifully. Adriaan Strauss tries to run around the Irish 10 and takes contact even though he has J.P. waiting on his outside. But the truth is J.P. is contributing to the problem. Has he worked hard to align in good depth and width off his captain? It’s a chicken and egg thing but good option-taking starts with having good options. Perhaps J.P. wanted to cut back inside, or he felt Adriaan was going to take contact anyway and held back so that he could secure the ruck. Either way, J.P. is not a viable option out wide.
This brings us to the second point, which is the fact that this is a brand-new backline. Johan Ackerman often talks of how it’s taken the Lions three years to shape their attack – it doesn’t happen overnight. Fans want open, “running rugby” but the irony is that the Boks might have been better served with a tighter, more limited game plan. We’re not defending Coetzee, but if anything perhaps he’s at fault for wanting a brand new group to express themselves. Will fans be happy with a more structured Bok attack in the short term? It might be necessary.
Funnily enough our main criticism of Willie is that he played at first receiver too often, or as second receiver was incredibly selfish. Perhaps it’s a hangover from the previous dispensation where the Boks relied almost solely on his spark and input to unpick the opposition, but we’re here to tell him that he can relax. It’s not on his shoulders anymore. He’ll get his confidence back if he realises that in this team the creative load is going to be shared. It seems the Boks want to use multiple playmakers, and that means Willie can sit back and choose to inject himself at the right moments. It’s more important to get back the devastating Willie le Roux we all know and love than to throw him away.
Why we bring up the first receiver issue is because of the electric effect Elton had on the players around him. As much as it takes time for a backline to click, the Springboks at times looked incredibly dangerous, and that is all down to Elton. A backline takes its alignment, depth and timing from its flyhalf and it was remarkable to see the effect Elton’s exquisite timing had.
A lot of that magic comes from the fact that he plays so late. Inside defenders are fixed for an extra half second, drifting is checked, the opposition must wait for the nature of the threat to reveal itself. Will he cut inside? Will he hit a forward? Will he hit a runner out the backdoor? The world stands still. By holding his runs and playing flat he creates spaces and gives the men around him time to choose fruitful lines. Elton is one of those rare players who makes the people around him better.
THE SPRINGBOK DEFENCE
The Springboks missed only 11 tackles on Saturday, although they were playing against 14 men so it’s hard to weigh this performance. Still, there’s some interesting information to be gleaned from Rugby Analytics’ Tackle Dashboard below (click to enlarge).
The first significant thing we notice is that of the 11 missed tackles, 6 happened in the first quarter of the match – a classic case of a new group trying to gel. Barbarians coaches say the hardest thing to work on in the little time they have is defence; all the players are trained in different philosophies. One man might be more aggressive, another might press-and-drift, and so on. The problem is that in the heat of battle those instincts take over, and so you get bad alignment and connectedness. Watch below as Damian de Allende completely loses touch with Elton on his inside.
Jantjies and Warren Whitely from the Lions know each other so they come up in concert, but Damian seems uncertain of his role and strands himself in no-man’s land, shoulders facing in. This clip is striking because it shows up the weakness of the De Allende-Jantjies defensive axis. De Allende, Super Rugby 2015’s statistically worst defender, suffers from habitual poor positioning. Jantjies, Super Rugby 2016’s statistically worst defender, suffers from habitually being run over. The Springboks’ 10-12 channel may yet become a feeding ground for opposition strike plays…
The Tackle Dashboard further points to a lack of cohesion as we see that on 55% of the Boks’ missed tackles the Line Set Up was detached. Players were losing touch with one another. What can happen then is that players start to focus on staying connected, and so they naturally become more passive as they concentrate on line integrity. We saw this passivity on defence a few times from the Boks and while some thought that might be the Boks’ system, we think it was just strangers trying to work together. Rugby Analytics‘ Line Shape table also supports this theory.
It’s a colourful mix of styles, far from the more consistent defensive approaches we see with settled teams. We also notice a lot of “shooting” (green bars), but in the Boks’ case that’s less a calculated strategy and more down to individual players coming up out of the line, perhaps thinking that their friends are coming with them.
If we go back to the Tackle Dashboard for a moment, we also see that the Boks missed 64% of their tackles in the 9-10 channel. On closer inspection we noticed an interesting flaw, one that the Irish might do well to exploit. Simply put, the Springbok pillar defenders often overtrack from the rucks, meaning they drift away too soon, leaving a space close in. Faf particularly was a culprit and needs to keep a calm head and wait, because when he shoots up or across too early he makes his team vulnerable to the inside pass.
Rugby Analytics logged 12 times that the Boks overtracked inside, especially in the early phases. It’s something they will have to address.
The last thing we’d like to say is that a big reason the Springboks lost was because they were technically inferior to the Irish. They knocked on, were stripped in contact and gave away silly penalties. And perhaps the most glaring indication that their heads weren’t right was how many times they went off their feet at the rucks. Now, you need to smash the other guy off your ball, but it takes a combination of aggression and focus to win the battle of the shoulders. Take a look at some of the Springboks’ most ridiculous Superman impressions.
Why this is significant is because it is a clear indicator of a lack of focus. The Boks lost the mental game, and that starts in the camp and at training. Allister is known as a player’s coach, yet as powerful as that kind of environment can be it also has its downside. If the Springboks are going to become a clinical and efficient outfit it has to start with the coach. He’s a nice guy, but he’ll need to bring a cold focus and application to this group sooner rather than later.