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FEATURE Has England's imitation of the Springboks winning machine malfunctioned?

Has England's imitation of the Springboks winning machine malfunctioned?
3 months ago

It is January 2020. Two months earlier England’s pack was bulldozed by South Africa’s heavies as the Springboks stomped their way to a 32-12 win in the World Cup final. Head coach Eddie Jones recognises that more grunt is needed up front so he appoints their forwards coach, Matt Proudfoot, to do a similar job with England.

It is December 2022. Eddie Jones is out on his ear and Steve Borthwick is parachuted in. There’s less than a year to go before the World Cup in France and the new coach recognises that the overall fitness of the side needs a boost. So he appoints South Africa’s strength and conditioning guru, Aled Walters, who turned South Africa’s players into indefatigable machines of destruction. Perhaps he could do a similar job with England.

It is March 2023. Bortwhick knows that his chances of lifting the World Cup in nine month’s time are slim. He’s already putting together the pieces for the next four-year cycle and recognises that the world’s best teams utilise a frenetic and well-orchestrated rush defence. So he appoints South  Africa’s defence coach, Felix Jones, who had helped turn South Africa’s players into tackling zealots that strangled even the most cohesive attacks on the planet. Can he do a similar job with England?

All innovation is a consequence of adaptation and reproduction. But when taken as a whole, the three examples above point to a clear pattern: South Africa achieves success with a certain coach. England copy their homework and appoint the same coach in the hope of replicating that success.

Felix Jones
The England players are slowly getting to grips with Felix Jones’ defensive system (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“I think that’s being very simplistic,” Proudfoot counters, when this equation is put to him. “I don’t think England are doing that at all. They’re doing what most international teams  do by turning a square defence into a rush defence and who better to do that than Felix? In my case, I was always going to leave the Springboks after the [2019] World Cup and wanted to find a new environment to challenge myself. Sometimes the way things look aren’t always how they are.”

Still, the optics tell a different story. And as Oscar Wilde said, ironically adapting a quote that was first recorded 140 years before he was born, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness”. Are England mediocre? Are they simply throwing Springboks leftovers into the pot and expecting an award winning meal? And is this even possible? Is there a chance that they’ll always miss a crucial ingredient that is paramount to South Africa’s glory?

The stats suggest that England aren’t too far behind the Boks on most key metrics. From the start  of last year, both sides are level on 43% in terms of the opposition’s gainline success. They win as many rucks per game and have almost the exact tackle success (England shave it with 85% to South Africa’s 83%).

Look at Ireland. How long did it take David Nucifora [Ireland’s performance director since 2014] to create this brilliant system? A long time. When I was with England we hammered Ireland twice in one year [24-12 and 18-7 in 2020].

What is striking, though, is the amount of dominant tackles that South African made last year – 15.5 per game which added up to 12% of all hits in the match. England have hovered around 10.8 dominant hits per game which accounts for less than 10% of their total hits. Is that down to a defensive pattern that has yet to bear fruit? Or is there something less tangible that no amount of stats work can reveal?

“The important thing to remember is that any new idea takes time to bed in,” Proudfoot explains. “Look at Ireland. How long did it take David Nucifora [Ireland’s performance director since 2014] to create this brilliant system? A long time. When I was with England we hammered Ireland twice in one year [24-12 and 18-7 in 2020]. They didn’t have this link-up play from the forwards and they didn’t have the 1-3-3-1 formation with their fly-half popping round the corner. That came later.

England v South Africa
South Africa are the double World Champions but the margins between them and England are very, very small if you look at the stats (Photo by Gaspafotos//Getty Images)

“I have every confidence in Steve [Borthwick]. I hope the RFU give him confidence and assure him that he’s their man for the next two World Cup cycles. I hope the media and the fans are patient because it’s not going to happen overnight.

“Most importantly, I hope the senior players embrace the new system. These are competitive people and when things don’t work as quickly as they’d like they can have second thoughts and start to wonder about their coach. For something like a blitz defence, you need full buy-in.”

Some cracks have started to show. According to a report in the Telegraph last week, several players in the camp have grown dissatisfied with the greater focus on England’s defence in training at the expense of more creative attacking patterns. A few more defeats and these grumbles could turn into mutiny.

It’s also important that the English players, and by extension the press and fans, start to view this new approach as English and not a carbon copy of the Boks, because then even if it works people will be like, ‘Oh, it only worked because it was a copy’. It has to be authentic.

“The hardest thing for any coach is creating a clear identity,” Proudfoot says. “That has been the biggest learning for me on my journey. Your identity has to be everything. In the way you talk to people, the way you set up your home base, it’s everything. But that can take six months. Felix has been there for less than six games.

“It’s also important that the English players, and by extension the press and fans, start to view this new approach as English and not a carbon copy of the Boks, because then even if it works people will be like, ‘Oh, it only worked because it was a copy’. It has to be authentic. Even when copying from others you have to put your own imprint on it.

“Look at the box-kick. South Africa stole that from Europe but became the masters of it with Fourie du Preez. There’s no reason why England can’t become the masters of the rush defence.”

Steve Borthwick
Proudfoot has faith in Steve Borthwick to turn England around but says the club v country issues are a hindrance (Photo Dan Mullan – RFU Getty Images)

There is one variable, though, that South Africans possess that others do not. Like Popeye’s spinach, the team’s self-fulfilling mythology provides a boost when the game is in the balance. It compels them into another breakdown and forces their limbs of lactic acid to blitz into a tackle.

Critics might scoff at the notion that Springboks have deeper wells than their competitors, that their devotion to something more important than sport edges them over there line in three consecutive one-point World Cup wins, but the players believe it. Their coaches believe it. And is there any tactic in the game that requires unshakable belief than the rush defence?

“Look, there’s no doubt that the Boks have an edge there,” Proudfoot says. “That’s because Rassie [Erasmus] has used that narrative, that struggle of the country and the players, and made it relatable to what they’re doing on the field. But that’s storytelling and the art of coaching is to find what makes a player tick, what motivates them, what gets them going.

“In my last game with England [a 27-13 loss in Twickenham in November 2022] I focused too much on the technical stuff. I understood the mechanisms to unlock the South Africa scrum but I should have put that second in the message. I should have emphasised the mentality and emotion that was needed to take on the Boks up front.

“You need to make it pertinent to the team. Same with the rush defence. You’re asking guys to put themselves in danger. They need to believe in what they’re doing. That it’s going to work. They have to believe that they’re doing it for a reason, for something important. Like I’ve said, that takes time.”

Take Maro [Itoje] as a prime example. I haven’t seen him this abrasive in a long time. He’s like the Maro of old. That’s not necessarily the rush defence but it’s an attitude that can be connected with the rush. He’s being a role model.

How do you buy time as a new coach working on a new ideology? According to Proudfoot, you do so by focusing on the positives and directly connect them to what you’re trying to implement.

“Take Maro [Itoje] as a prime example,” Proudfoot says. “I haven’t seen him this abrasive in a long time. He’s like the Maro of old. That’s not necessarily the rush defence but it’s an attitude that can be connected with the rush. He’s being a role model. And the work England are doing at the breakdown, wow, they’re so intense. That’s what they need. More abrasive, more intensity, more hunger. I’m confident England are on the right track. I’m sure they’ll come good.”

Proudfoot is less optimistic when talking about a stumbling block that no amount of coach-speak can remove. It’s the old club versus country debate and means that many England players are having to realign their thinking every time they join the national camp.

Maro Itoje
Despite a disappointing loss to Scotland, Matt Proudfoot believes Maro Itoje is playing with the ballast of old, setting an example (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“In South Africa, all the teams play more or less the same style,” Proudfoot adds. “It’s the same in the Top 14 in France. In Ireland the clubs are effectively controlled by the same board. That’s not the case in England where the clubs aren’t beholden to the RFU. Their obligation is to their own fans and owners.

“So you have teams like Northampton and Leicester, or Saracens and Harlequins, who are down the road from each other but couldn’t be more different in styles. Now you’re asking players from all those teams to find common ground on the field? It doesn’t always work like that. For me this was the toughest hurdle to get over when I was with England.”

Jones’ blitz defence will rush into an Irish attack that operates with the precision of a Swiss watch. All those moving parts, perfectly in sync; one false step by an Englishman and we could see a disaster unfold at Twickenham on Saturday.

Should the worst happen, and should England get cut to shreds, the positivity surrounding the appointment of a World Cup winning assistant coach might start to erode. Belief against this majestic Ireland side needs to be absolute.

Comments

2 Comments
R
Rugby 99 days ago

Maybe we can give them a bit longer to get sorted. New coaching team.
They are within a shot of winning the 6 nations

B
Bull Shark 100 days ago

Jones’ blitz defence…

Ah, I think it was Nienaber’s.

The factor that the English need to inject into the rush defence to make it work is their mindset. The Boks are Uber-aggressive on defense. Love to make big hits.

The English aren’y there yet. They need to have belief in the system, yes, and they have to be willing to put their bodies on the line. Thats the Bok way.

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