England facing a kicking? South Africa ready to put boot to ball again
It may not have been the most entertaining of spectacles, but the heavy kicking approach of South Africa was enough to see off Wales in the semi-finals and book themselves a Rugby World Cup final rematch with England on Saturday.
The Springboks’ 37 kicks from hand was actually only one more than Wales’ total of 36, although Rassie Erasmus’ group played to their strengths and the conditions, and were able to do enough to deny Wales a first ever Rugby World Cup final in what would have proven to be a fitting farewell to Warren Gatland’s time as the nation’s head coach.
It was a performance consistent with South Africa’s other outings in this Rugby World Cup, where the quantity of their kicking outstripped Namibia, Italy, Canada and Japan from the earlier rounds. In fact, the only game where South Africa have kicked less than an opponent in the tournament was in the opener against New Zealand, their only loss so far. Perhaps they were holding something back for what looked like a possible final?
Regardless, their boot-first strategy has got them this far and whilst pessimistic fans have critiqued it, especially in the wake of England’s masterful performance against New Zealand in the other semi-final, it could be the perfect tactic to derail Eddie Jones’ in-form side.
On the surface, a heavy reliance on kicking to try and control the territory battle would seem to play into England’s hands. It’s a tactic that they have mastered over the last cycle and there is no denying how effective it was in their victories over Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. Between Ben Youngs, George Ford, Owen Farrell and the cadre of influential chasers in the back three and pack, England have been able to impose their game on everyone they have faced at the tournament so far.
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Watch: Eddie Jones speaks to the press after England’s win over New Zealand
Where England have been less tested, however, is in how they respond to a well-working kicking game being imposed back on them. Neither Australia nor New Zealand chose or were able to do so, whilst Tonga and the USA similarly came unstuck in that area. In fairness, Argentina had a decent crack at it. What ensued, though, was perhaps Elliot Daly’s most reliable and secure performance at the back, in terms of his defensive output, at the international level.
That said, it is one area of Daly’s game that has been critiqued in the past, especially in terms of owning the space in the back field and dealing with those contested high-balls. It has also afflicted his former Wasps teammate and current Springbok full-back, Willie le Roux. Both teams will be looking at the potential gains they could find if the opposing 15 is not at their sharpest.
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There are also concerns over the fitness of Jonny May, who left the semi-final with New Zealand prematurely, seemingly struggling with his hamstring. A hamstring injury had threatened to keep him out of that game, although he was deemed fit enough to start. If he has suffered from a relapse, it will bring one of Jack Nowell, if fit, Joe Cokanasiga or Ruaridh McConnochie into the starting XV. May’s ability in defence defusing those aerial bombs has been vital for England and his loss would be keenly felt.
Nowell, Cokanasiga and McConnochie all bring their own unique attributes, but none perfectly replicate the skill set of May. McConnochie is arguably the closest, though he has just two caps to his name thanks to a pre-Rugby World Cup injury. Nowell would be the most likely replacement if he is fit again after his hamstring injury, whilst Cokanasiga would offer intriguing offensive possibilities, though he is someone Erasmus would have his team intent on turning and trying to exploit in the aforementioned kicking game.
Faf de Klerk has come in for some unfair criticism this Rugby World Cup as he has contributed heavily to South Africa’s territorial approach, rather than playing with the freedom and opportunistic nature that won him his starting spot in the team. He is playing to Erasmus’ game plan and based on results so far, it’s working. There will be a pressure on him on Saturday to find space, to attempt to move Daly around and if May is out, try to expose any disconnects in the new-look England back three. If May is available and still not 100% after the hamstring injury, that provides opportunities in itself.
Similarly, Handré Pollard will have to kick precisely if South Africa are to beat England at their own game, with Watson and May, again, if fit, two of the better kick receivers in the international arena. The Springboks’ chase isn’t too shabby, either, especially with Makazole Mapimpi and Siya Kolisi among the more effective chasers. Cheslin Kolbe plays above his height and weight, too, whilst Sbu Nkosi can excel in that area also.
Potentially, the final is a coming together of two potent offensive kicking games who will have possible defensive frailties imposed on them by injury and/or full-backs who prosper in other aspects of the game, away from the aerial contest. Both teams have, prior to the Rugby World Cup, looked vulnerable when opposition sides have played a shorter kicking game, drawing the full-backs forward and not giving them time to set themselves to receive the ball. Again, both teams have the athleticism in their chase to really up the pressure.
Of course, if the Daly that showed up against Argentina is now the consistent standard he will bring at 15 and le Roux can rediscover his form from a season or two ago, the two teams could cancel each other out. At worst, it’s an intriguing tactical chess game ahead of kick off, at best it’s the decisive factor in the Rugby World Cup final.
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For those insisting that South Africa move away from the approach that has got them to this point, at such a late stage in the tournament, are probably setting themselves up for disappointment. Erasmus will have an ace or two up his sleeve going into the game, but he is unlikely to tinker with the basic approach of his team too heavily.
The Springboks have the kicking options and chasers to make England uncomfortable, they just have to execute consistently and not waste possession with aimless kicks. Territory has arguably been much more important at this Rugby World Cup than possession, but if they gift England the ball cheaply, with the calibre of player the northern hemisphere side has, they will be in for a long evening on Saturday.
Watch: Sam Smith caught up with fans after England versus New Zealand
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