'We were never going to change anything': Kolisi on late-game tactics
The Springboks’ less than compelling form heading into their 100th clash with the All Blacks had many writing off the world champions’ chances of securing a victory against their longtime rivals but it quickly became apparent that form wasn’t going to play a part in the result.
Although the All Blacks scored an exceptional try in the first three minutes of the match, the Springboks bounced back quickly after NZ wing George Bridge dropped a high ball inside his own 22 and Sbu Nkosi was on hand to scoop the ball off the deck and touch down to earn his side five points.
South Africa have drawn criticism in recent times for their kicking-oriented game plan, which culminated in the 2019 World Cup winners putting boot to ball an unprecedented 44 times in their second test with the British and Irish Lions earlier this year.
After changing up tactics slightly during the Rugby Championship (or perhaps simply not adhering to the game plan), the Springboks suffered two disheartening defeats to the Wallabies, in matches where South Africa made ‘just’ 26 and 28 kicks from hand.
Coach Jacques Nienaber evidently compelled his side to double down on the tactics that won the Springboks the World Cup, however, and they reverted to a box kick-heavy strategy against the All Blacks – which came very close to helping the Boks pull a surprising win out of the hat, were it not for a Jordie Barrett penalty in the dying minutes of the game that kept New Zealand undefeated for the season.
The Springboks made 38 kicks from hand during the closely fought encounter, with scrum-half Faf de Klerk contributing the vast majority.
Whether the Springboks were inside their own 22, making progress in the middle third of the field or on the cusp of breaching the All Blacks’ red zone, De Klerk hoisted the ball into the sky – which caused ample problems for the NZ back three.
It was a tactic that will win over few neutral supporters but one which has landed the Springboks a handful of key scalps in the past. Had South Africa emerged victorious from the game, the tactics would have likely been praised by fans of the Boks, but it was one crucial decision late in the game that had some up in arms.
After taking the lead with 13 minutes left to play through Handre Pollard’s fourth penalty of the evening, the Springboks looked to have the match under control. The under-pressure All Blacks were making even more mistakes than they had throughout the earlier stages of the match.
Still, the All Blacks continued to attack the Springboks with expansive tactics and after running the ball down the left tram lines, a loose Rieko Ioane pass was snapped up by fullback Willie le Roux. New Zealand’s reserve midfielder, Quinn Tupaea, quickly got over the tackled player and was rightfully awarded a penalty for Le Roux not releasing the ball – and Barrett stepped up to kick the less-than-regulation penalty.
The All Blacks knew exactly what the Springboks would be sending their way – so why did they still struggle at times with Faf de Klerk's constant barrage of box kicks? #AllBlacks #Springboks #NZLvRSAhttps://t.co/KR9XDH7qop
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 25, 2021
Down by two points with barely a minute to play, the Springboks found themselves just inside the All Blacks half shortly after the resulting kick-off. Possession, at that stage of the match, was crucial. Although sides defending narrow leads in dying moments of games have been known to commit penalties by sealing off the ball, the Springboks would be taking their fate out of their own hands and handing it to the All Blacks if they weren’t able to hold onto the ball.
With time almost up on the clock, the Springboks needed to adjust their tactics for the time and score but, instead, reserve scrum-half Herschel Jantjies again sent the ball to the heavens – and Barrett was on hand to defuse the bomb.
The All Blacks ate up another 10 seconds on the clock before Beauden Barrett belted the ball deep into Springboks territory, and not until the buzzer was readying to sound did the world champions manage to work their way back into their opponent’s half, with Franco Mostery ultimately coughing up the ball and ending the game.
The decision by Jantjies to kick was chastised on social media, with All Blacks, Springboks and neutral fans all questioning why South Africa didn’t adjust their tactics.
Why oh why on the 79th min do you kick the ball back when you have just won it
— Mark Keohane (@mark_keohane) September 25, 2021
That last box kick from Jantjies in that position of the field, I fail to understand, honestly. Thought it was an absolute gift from the All Blacks to begin with even ??????
— Yoza Qoshe (@Prince_Yyoza) September 25, 2021
South Africa don’t even want the ball with 1min left and they’re losing. So negative. #NZLvRSA
Cannot believe how we gave that away. Just didn’t want to win. Shocking give away of possession by Willie, Pollard, Jantjies and Faf in the last 5 minutes. We have no idea. I’m done with this kick everything game plan. It’s brain dead.
— Dean Oelschig (@DeanOelsch) September 25, 2021
Following the match, both coach Jacques Nienaber and captain Siya Kolisi backed the decision to kick, suggesting that the tactic had worked throughout the match.
“We were on the field in the 77th minute and the message was from the players – not from upstairs – stick to the game plan because that’s how we know how to play and it’s always worked for us,” Kolisi said. “So we were never going to change anything because that’s how we won the ball back. I really love that because it’s been working the whole day, why change it at the end?”
Nienaber was less forthcoming when queried whether it would have been worth changing tactics: “I don’t think so,” he said.
“We were in it at the end and we put ourselves in a position to win the game,” he later added.
“I am hurting yes, as we could have pulled it off. We believed that those kicks were effective, and all created one on one situations, which is something we wanted to achieve.
“We had opportunities, they had opportunities. A call here, a bounce of the ball there, that was how close it was.”
While some viewers may not have necessarily been enamoured with the Springboks’ strategy, they did keep South Africa in contention throughout the match and had them on the cusp of a historic victory.
Often, tactics are assessed based on the final outcome of a match, but if Le Roux had better support around him after snaffling Ioane’s pass, or Tupaea had been standing in a different part of the park, the result could have gone a different way – and neither of those situations were impacted by the tactics on the night.
The Springboks and All Blacks will square off once more on the Gold Coast next weekend and, in all likelihood, the Springboks will stick to the game plan they took into Saturday’s encounter.
Join RugbyPass+ now and be a part of the conversation with all-new commenting!