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Jake White: The unspoken issue with the 7-1 split

By Jake White
Eben Etzebeth of South Africa walks the pitch after an injury during the Old Mutual Wealth Series match between England and South Africa at Twickenham Stadium on November 12, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Steve Bardens - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Imagesges)

Off the bat, I’d say this is one of those Test matches where the only thing you’re going to win is bragging rights. What I mean by that is both sides are heading for the knockout stages. I know pundits will say Scotland could still win their next three games, and of course they can, but it looks unlikely.

What’s been noteworthy to this build-up, is everyone is talking about the 7-1 split. Yet, no one is really talking about the fact the Boks are facing the No 1 team in the world. When the All Blacks are on top, it’s almost a prefix to every opening line, and that distracting bench narrative suits Ireland perfectly.

You’ve got to think Ireland are favourites. What adds credibility to that claim is they’ve done everything England’s 2003 World Cup winners did; they gone down South and beaten the All Blacks on their own turf. They’ve won a Grand Slam in the year of the World Cup and don’t forget, the Springboks haven’t beaten them since 2016.

Every time they’ve been challenged in recent years, they’ve risen to the occasion, which is very different to what they’ve done historically.

I reminds me of the strategy Sir Clive Woodward had. He’d say to me. ‘We need to win down South. We need to play the big sides’. And they did. They weren’t always successful, and they’d pay big money for the Tri-Nations sides to come to Twickenham, but they were offsetting those costs through ticket sales and hospitality. Most importantly, however, they were getting scalps of the only three sides that had won the World Cup at the time. It boosted morale and gave them a confidence to win the biggest prize.

Now 20 years on, Ireland have followed that template and turned a corner. They have stood up to every challenge thrown at them.

It’s funny because in 2004, Clive Woodward remarked that the model to follow was the Irish one. I said, ‘what do you mean, Clive? You have the biggest playing pool, the most money, the most resources, and you want to follow Ireland?’ What I think he meant, having looked at their four franchises closely as coach of the Bulls, was there’s a tax benefit to keeping the best players in Ireland, which has allowed the IRFU to invest in an outstanding academy system. When you compare it with Australia’s, there’s a stark difference. The ARU used to boast an Academy pathway through all the franchises; the Waratahs, the Reds, the Brumbies. They had defined green and gold squads, and former Wallaby players would visit those Academies, take a thorough look at the talent on show and fast-track the best juniors. From that, they developed generational talents like Quade Cooper, Michael Hooper and David Pocock. Ever since they stopped it, there’s no doubt that Australian rugby has gone backwards.


Correspondingly, what did Ireland do? They doubled down and upped their investment. The private school system, especially around Dublin, is incredible. The Academies are super-professional and there is a defined pathway to the Ireland set-up. I know other nations are studying the template and looking to take the best bits of it to integrate into their pathways. That vision is bearing fruit for Ireland.  Four World Cups later, you can see the quality they’ve produced.

There’s another aspect that has impressed me in recent years, too. They’ve brought in some top-class coaching and playing talent from overseas. You look at Andy Friend at Connacht, players like Dougie Howlett, CJ Stander, Jean de Villiers, RG Snyman at Munster. Isa Nacewa, Scott Fardy or James Lowe at Leinster. Or even Ruan Pienaar and Duane Vermeulen at Ulster. That’s all been planned to boost the intellectual property within the game. Even the current Boks coaching group, Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus, spent time at Munster and Jacques will return to Leinster after the World Cup. It’s almost seen as a centre of excellence for professional rugby.

Another ‘import’ is Andy Farrell. Now I don’t want to knock England but they gave Stuart Lancaster the top job when he was still a junior coach –  it didn’t work. They put Martin Johnson in there – it didn’t work. Yet all of them, and we can add Graham Rowntree, have gone on to become fantastic coaches somewhere else – bar Johnson. What Ireland have done is taken them when they’ve learnt their lessons and made their mistakes. That’s very shrewd.

Lancaster Racing England vlog Jake White
(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Looking at the 23 they have selected against South Africa, it’s very impressive, and I feel Ireland know that this is their time. Take a guy like Johnny Sexton. He is the embodiment of how the model works. I actually read something out to my squad the other day about him. I said, ‘Boys, look at Johnny Sexton. He’s 38 years of age. He dropped the winning goal for his school team. He played 179 times for Leinster, 40 times for Racing Metro, and has played 115 Tests for his country.’ There’s only one way a person can do that. By being dedicated and importantly, being looked after.

Coaching in the URC, you can see that Irish playing patterns at each of the provinces. It’s so in sync.

It doesn’t matter if you know how Leinster are going to play, it’s another thing stopping it. As an example, when I started coaching the Springboks in 2004, England were the team to beat. When you did a video session, you’d watch Greenwood or Tindall running it up and then it was Dallaglio or Hill that round the corner and then they’d change direction and Martin Johnson would run as hard as he could and take about four forwards in with him, and when they’d done that, they’d pass to Wilkinson, who would hoof it down the field. If Leinster play a keep the ball alive game, the bottom line is they are so good at it, you have to find a way to nullify it. They are so aligned and so well-drilled and that is the crux the side facing the Boks this weekend

So what do I think about the 7-1 split? Well everyone in SA is talking about it, I know that. People are wondering if it’s visionary, or a bit crazy?

One thing Rassie has always done, since taking the job, is take risks and the risk comes if you get a player who has to stay on the field even if his hammy is tight. Theoretically, he has to stay on the field to get the job done. Imagine this scenario. It’s 15-16 to Ireland, there’s 20 minutes to go and two of your backline players are struggling with cramp. There’s a far greater chance they could pull up be out of the tournament. That would be a nightmare for the Boks.


What does Andy Farrell do to mitigate this 7-1 tactic. Well, it would be easy to tell his big-hitters to target some Springboks backs, but he’ll be doing that anyway. He’ll be telling his squad, discipline is key.

Andy Farrell will be cognisant of the fact that the Boks will bring in seven forwards, but if we look at the personnel, the feted Bomb squad is no longer there. Back in the day, you had Frans Steyn, Lood de Jager, Malcolm Marx and Vincent Koch. They are very powerful boys now missing. They also don’t have a second hooker to bring in.

I’d finish by saying, there are certain givens you need to win Test rugby. A tighthead and a placekicker is paramount, but one of the things I’ve also learnt from real masters of the game is that if you’re under pressure, if you make a replacement, it’s best to replace like for like. For example; a prop for a prop, or a lock for a lock. You don’t want to one player coming on and having to make three positional changes, which is what we could be looking at this weekend. Hypothetically, let’s say a centre has to come off. Kurt-Lee (Arendse) has to go to full-back, Damian (Willemse) has to go to centre and Cobus (Reinach) has to go to the wing. Any coach worth his weight in gold will tell you that is not a clever move and there could be consequences.

Hopefully Rassie knows what he is doing and the gamble pays off.



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