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How rugby's current laws are benefitting negative Springboks tactics

By Alex McLeod

Trending on RugbyPass

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The Springboks have struggled to win over fans with their ultra-conservative tactics as they fell to a third straight Rugby Championship defeat last weekend.

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Fresh after their back-to-back losses to the Wallabies, the reigning world champions came up short against the All Blacks in a 19-17 defeat in Townsville that was plagued by countless stoppages and endless kicking by the South Africans.

Most expected the Springboks to continue their kick-heavy approach against the All Blacks after having deployed that strategy against the British and Irish Lions, Los Pumas and the Wallabies in recent months, but even the New Zealanders were surprised by South Africa’s sheer volume of kicking on Saturday.

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Jordie Barrett gave the All Blacks backfield confidence with his performance | Healthspan Elite Performer of the Week
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Jordie Barrett gave the All Blacks backfield confidence with his performance | Healthspan Elite Performer of the Week

Making more than double the number of kicks than the All Blacks, the Springboks continued to persist with their game plan even when they were losing late in the match or were presented with strong attacking opportunities.

That style of play has since drawn plenty of criticism, but Springboks head coach Jacques Neinaber and captain Siya Kolisi have indicated they were happy with their approach and indicated they are unlikely to stray from that game plan in this weekend’s rematch against the All Blacks on the Gold Coast.

Among the various critics lamenting the tactics on show from the Springboks was former All Blacks wing Sir John Kirwan, who told The Breakdown this week that South Africa’s strategy bored him “to tears”, regardless of how effective it may or may not be.

“Look, they put us under incredible pressure and we were average at times,” Kirwan said.

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“Lineout didn’t function, high-ball was so competitive, and, like Jordie [Barrett] said afterwards, Faf [de Klerk] was putting up kicks that were spiralling and spinning and all that sort of stuff.

“Let’s not get this wrong, when they play like that, it’s really hard to play against, but mine is a philosophical answer. It bores me to tears. I don’t like it. However, how do you play against it?”

The 1987 World Cup-winner took particular aim at South Africa’s ploy to slow the game down by getting their medics on the field as much and for as long as possible to tend to minor injury issues.

“For me, I thought they were going to give the physio a test cap, she was on that much,” Kirwan joked as he called into the question the values of which the Springboks play the game and suggested they are capable of playing to a higher standard.

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“Blood bin? Get the blood off, get people on. Is that within the values of our game? They do it really well, but, for me, I think South Africa has more to offer.

“When Kolisi says after the game, ‘That’s our DNA’, although he’s the captain and I don’t really want to discredit him because he is a way better player than I ever was and a great man, however I don’t think that is their DNA.

“They have outstanding outside backs. They’ve had some of the best outside backs in the last decade.”

The former Italy, Japan and Blues head coach went on to express concerns over whether other teams will have to adopt a similar playing style to the Springboks to achieve success at upcoming World Cups.

“Is that style of rugby gonna be the style of rugby that wins World Cups now, and are we just going to all be bored at a World Cup? Or, are we going to say, as rugby people, ‘We don’t like this, people, we want to run the ball’?”

Black Ferns Sevens star and Tokyo Olympics gold medallist Ruby Tui agreed with Kirwan’s sentiments as she said his comments about how South Africa’s game plan could impact the World Cup in years to come are valid.

Tui told The Breakdown that she also isn’t a fan of the way the Springboks are playing, but said it was understandable that they have adopted such tactics given the way in which the current laws of the game favour attacking kicks.

Among the numerous experimental law changes being trialled by World Rugby in this year’s Rugby Championship include the 50/22 rule and goal-line drop-outs.

The 50/22 law allows teams that can kick the ball out of play in the opposition’s 22 from inside their own half, or kick it out of play inside the opposition’s half from their own 22, to have the throw-in from the ensuing lineout.

Goal-line drop-outs are being awarded to teams instead of five-metre scrums or 22-metre drop-outs when a player is held up in-goal, an attacking player knocks the ball on in-goal or an attacking kick is grounded by the defenders in their own in-goal.

Tui said those law variations, as well as the increased influence of the television match official, are playing into South Africa’s hands and are counter-intuitive to the attacking brand of rugby that fans want to see.

“JK asked, ‘Is this how we are going to win World Cups?’ I think the way the rules are moving, it’s actually favouring that, the way the TMO is getting more involved,” she told The Breakdown.

“We look at [Bryan] Habana here in his prime, there’s nothing more I’d want to watch than the All Blacks vs South Africa with an amazing back three running into the line, injecting themselves into the game, but they’ve changed the rules.

“The 50/22, the kicking favouring the attacking team now, so your question, JK, is extremely relevant. The way the game is moving forward might not favour what we want right now.”

Former All Blacks wing Jeff Wilson, meanwhile, said that he doesn’t feel threatened by the Springboks as he believes they haven’t developed a game plan that allows them to fulfil their attacking potential to beat the All Blacks or Wallabies.

“For me, and we talked about this and we talked about it in the post-match show, I just see them having so much more potential than that,” Wilson told The Breakdown.

“You look at the record of this team, and this is what I want to talk about, the last 20 years, we’ve played them 44 times, 33-10-1 [in favour of the All Blacks]. The last 10 years, 19 times, 15-3-1 [in favour of the All Blacks].

“… This is why I’m not concerned about South Africa, the fact that we know exactly what to expect. We knocked them out at a semi-final in the Rugby World Cup in 2015. We beat them in the first round last time in 2019.

“I don’t think they’re developing a game which, one, couldn’t beat Australia, and didn’t get the job done against the All Blacks. If they’re predictable, it makes it easier for us to prepare, we just didn’t quite get it right on the weekend.”

Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:

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How rugby's current laws are benefitting negative Springboks tactics

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