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Analysis: How the Springbok defence hunt as a pack to feed their Jackals

By Conor Wilson
The Springboks' defence. (Photo by Michael Steele/2019 Getty Images)

“This position will be held, and the section will remain here until relieved. The enemy cannot be allowed to interfere with the programme. If the section cannot remain here alive, it will remain here dead, but in any case, it will remain here. Should any man through shellshock or other cause attempt to surrender, he will remain here dead. Should all guns be blown out, the section will use Mils grenades and other novelties. Finally, the position, as stated, will be held”


Lieutenant Frank Bethune, No. 1 section, 3rd MG Company, AIF Passchendale, March 1918

Effective defence in any enterprise aligns with common principles; preparation, adaptability, organisation, communication, numbers and clarity in decision making. But the key one is determination.

Determination epitomises a successful defence. Lieutenant Bethunes’ orders evoked desperation that was exemplified by the feat they achieved. His section held their position for eighteen days, repulsing repeated waves of the German attack, before they were relieved, exhausted, but alive. His orders would later be published by the allies as an embodiment of the spirit that won the war.

The same principles apply in Rugby. Work-rate, the desire to get back in the line, all points to desperation. Eddie Jones famously stated the only metric he looks at in statistics is the time it takes for a tackler to get himself back in the line post-tackle.

Jacques Nienaber, the South African defence coach developed a defence that along with the set-piece, won them the Rugby Championship and World Cup.

We know the nutcracker to beat these defences will be found, but before we do, it’s worth knowing what we’re fighting, hence this series on the dynamics of the South African D.


The Nienaber tackling class

Nienaber is more than a clever defence coach. In certain ways, he has revolutionised rugby defence. His defence is high reward, and through the work-rate, detail and intelligence involved, not even that high risk.

This was particularly evident in Nienabers’ focus on the breakdown.

The breakdown is arguably the most important facet of rugby, and as such, Nienaber wanted to use all elements at his disposal to turn it in his favour.

He wanted to do this in three main ways;

  1. Provide his Jackals time advantage in their chosen opportunities.
  2. Encourage ill-disciplined clear-outs through frustration.
  3. Disrupt quick ball as much as possible.

The last one, in particular, is essential. Ruck speed is a key focus in Attack. With quick ball; the line can’t set and disorganisation creeps in, resulting in the gaps an attack wants to see.

Nienaber wanted to stop this, which is why a year ago, we saw defenders rolling into the cleaner’s post tackle, as to complicate the opposition clear-out and create slow ball. He evolved this in a few ways, so opposition delivery was as slow and as problematic as possible.


This way, he had a chance to influence one of the prevalent parts of the game to his advantage as many occasions as possible. They did this, through a change in thinking and simple decision making in tackle technique.

The Fist

The first tackle technique naturally makes use of South Africas’ out-in rush that we will explain more in the next article. It’s used in “off-9” and “off-10” play and is designed to achieve Nienaber’s first objective.

  1. Provide his Jackals time advantage in their chosen opportunities.

Francois Louw, Siya Kolisi, Duane Vermuelen, and Malcolm Marx are renowned for their “limpet” like strength over the ball. Nienaber has created “the fist” to further assist them.

Resembling a hand curling into a fist, this has been proven to provide likely chances of penalties. In the fist, the third/fourth defender (shooter) rushes up off the line in their out-in rush, forming the familiar “triangle” that we see from many teams, including England and New Zealand.

However, the South African shooters’ objective is different from these sides. Whereas most sides try to force the player backward, South Africa force the player sideways.

This is the “close” portion of the fist, where the rush cuts off the outside channels, with the last “shooter” making the tackle from the outside in, controlling the carriers’ final body position and forcing him inside.

In both these examples, we see the last shooter (13) rush up to cut off the outside options, forcing the carrier back inside.

This is done for four reasons;

  1. To isolate the carrier from his support, usually positioned behind or outside.
  2. To ensure the tackle is easier in one-on-one tackles.
  3. To decrease the chances of next phase wide play due to opposition resourcing of the ruck.
  4. To drive the carrier into positions where the “Jackal” can be applied to the greatest effect.

This is demonstrated in their lineout defence. South Africa often places either the hooker, a proficient jackalling back-row or both at tail-gunner.

If the opposition lineout is shortened, they position two members of the backrow in the ten channel, with the tail-gunner alternating between the hooker and the last member of the backrow.

We can see this with Siya Kolisi and Pieter Steph-Du Toit in the ten channel, with Steph-Du Toit closing Hamish Watson into Duane Vermuelen.

The way the South African lineout defence is set means that if the ‘close’ is successful on the first phase, you direct the carrier into any two of three breakdown specialists who in some cases can get enough space like below to pounce and anchor themselves.

Nienabers’ philosophy is that the best time for the turnover to occur is on the first phase when the opposition are firmly in attack sequence.

Turnover on the first phase exacerbates the danger of transition attack considerably more.

This was why England threw to the rear of the lineout repeatedly against South Africa in 2018, to hold them and prevent contesting on first phase crash ball, such was Ben Teo’s role.

This ‘drive’ sideways can isolate the carrier on any phase though, not just the first, which brings us to the ‘lock’. When your fingers have closed, all that’s left is to lock the thumb. This is the ‘lock’ stage, which is where we start to see Nienabers’ intellect.

As we have most likely gathered, the ‘close’ is designed to drive the ball carrier towards the jackals. However, the way South Africa pick their moments to execute this is genius.

We see Kolisi manage to close Kieran Read into the path of Malcolm Marx.

Here New Zealand have a man over, which engages Makazole Mapimpi on the close. He shoots up, hitting Ben Smith in the side and pushing him inside, where we can see Louw.

Louw gets into a position where he can be a nuisance to the New Zealand delivery.

By the time Smith is grounded, Louw is ready to pounce, nearly gaining a turnover.

As we can see against Wales, the South African defence starts wide to angle in so they’re always angling the carrier back towards the ruck.

We even see Franco Mostert join Jesse Kriel to ensure Jonathan Davies is pushed into the loving and eager arms of Marx and Kolisi.

The Pencil

The Pencil is a technique that can buy into the ‘fist’. However, we usually see it outside of the fourth defender when the ball has hit two passes. Where the defence is more reliant on one-on-one tackles.

This takes care of the last two objectives;

  1. Encourage ill-disciplined clear-outs through frustration.
  2. Disrupt quick ball as much as possible.

We see the tackler go low, and by low, I mean taking a knee.

This is because the intention isn’t to dominate the hit but to ride contact and finish in a “pencil” position. This kneeling means they’re dragged into this position.

Once here, the tackler remains for a good second after the tackle has been grounded to feign tackle completion to the referee, amongst other agendas.

The Springboks want to cause problems for players arriving “legally”. By laying behind in the lane and delaying a little, the cleaners don’t have a clear entry into the gate.

If the cleaner shows caution, this can result in an ineffective cleanout against the jackals.

This turnover is off the back of the New Zealand “sweep”, a move that Nienaber clearly targeted as a turnover opportunity due to the isolation it leaves the winger Rieko Ioane in.

Willie Le Roux comes in for the tackle and like Jesse Kriel, he’s kneeling, a far cry from the “cheek to cheek, straight spine step in” technique taught as schoolboys.

This plant means Le Roux is dragged into this “pencil” position, affecting the efficacy of the clear-out. Ryan Crotty is unable to shift Kriel, resulting in the penalty.

Alternatively, they come in from the side, resulting in penalties.

We see the result, as is in a perfect pencil, which causes Sam Cane to come in from the side in what should have been a clear penalty.

This principle is followed often with one-on-one tackles, and as we can see, referees are very lenient to it as its part of the tackle, which they’re simply completing.

This tackle completion inhibits the attacking momentum, and when it happens as often as it does, it can result in frustration that manifests itself in players leading with the shoulder, or coming through the side. Penalty earned. Objective two and three achieved.

Nienaber’s defence is unconventional and unbelievably innovative.

Yet it defies everything a player may have been taught growing up. To keep the line straight and connected, to tackle and drive backward.

In the next article, we’ll discuss more of these innovations and how we could see ways to beat them going forward, but the forward-thinking can’t be denied.

By ignoring convention and embracing innovation, Nienaber has created a defence that is arguably the finest in World Rugby. Now his position as the Head Coach is confirmed, more of this thinking will be seen going forward.

This can only be good for South Africa.

New Boks coach Nienaber talks to the media:

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