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FEATURE How South Africa's Bomb Squad waged war on the rugby world

How South Africa's Bomb Squad waged war on the rugby world
6 months ago

Beast Mtawarira famously led the assault on Dan Cole and England’s scrum in the 2019 World Cup final. Four years later, the player-turned-commentator witnessed another set-piece massacre in the second semi-final.

The irrepressible Ox Nché and Mtawarira’s former teammates forced four scrum penalties in the second half, and the Boks fought back from a nine-point deficit to beat England 16-15. The following week, they edged New Zealand 12-11 in the decider.

“I watched all three of those World Cup playoffs from the sideline, and the experience aged me, man,” he says. “That second-half scrum performance against England was the highlight of the campaign. Man, that was something else.

“That moment where Ox got the better of Cole… Cole must have thought it was 2019 all over again. It was a thing of beauty. I watched that battle unfold with a smile on my face.”

The Springboks’ titanic scrummaging was six years in the making. When you speak to the front-row experts with an intimate knowledge of South Africa’s culture as well as the game’s dark arts, you begin to understand how the Boks built this weapon of mass destruction, and used it to win back-to-back World Cups.

Rassie Erasmus rebuilt the South African rugby system after coming to power in 2018. The recruitment of Aled Walters as head of athletic performance was essential, an investment in scrum conditioning and an even greater emphasis on this set piece.

“Rassie challenged us to change our mindset,” Mtawarira remembers. “He put [then-forwards coach] Matt Proudfoot at the centre of the new scrum project.

“South Africa is blessed with big athletes who love the scrum battle. He empowered Matt to transform our players into a unit, and that unit into a weapon that could earn us penalties – and ultimately territory and points.”

Mtawarira Springboks 100 days to go World Cup
Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira was a vital member of the Springboks’ world champion vintage four years ago (Photo by David Ramas/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Proudfoot left the Boks after the 2019 World Cup to pursue an opportunity with England, and eventually travelled to the 2023 tournament as part of Namibia’s coaching staff. He speaks passionately about his time with the Boks, and what is remembered as a turning point in South African rugby history.

Allister Coetzee’s side suffered record losses during 2016 and 2017. While most of the Bok coaches moved on, Proudfoot was retained.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Erasmus believed the Boks had the tools to win the 2019 World Cup, and establish a South African rugby dynasty.

“Rassie wanted a second set-piece that could put the opposition under pressure and win penalties,” Proudfoot recalls. “England managed to nullify our maul during that three-Test series in June 2018, and we didn’t really have an alternative. So in the build-up to the Rugby Championship, we put an emphasis on our scrum.

“From the outset, we had excellent scrummaging hookers. Beast was the most aggressive loosehead, and at that stage we felt he and Frans Malherbe worked well in a combination.

“We had a back five that wanted to scrum. Duane Vermeulen understood the value of a dominant set-piece, and locks like Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Franco Mostert simply loved to scrum.

“We had all the ingredients for a potent cocktail, and we started to mix it together ahead of the Rugby Championship. We changed our philosophy a bit, and concentrated on the speed of our engagement. We knew if we moved quickly we could put the opposition under pressure and get the results we were after.”

I doubt other teams got to the same extremes. The live sessions became heated to the point a couple of fights broke out.

A greater focus on live scrumming during training sessions accelerated their progress. Mtawarira recalls how the internal competition took the players to dark places, and how every scrum “was war”.

“Every live session was like a Test match. The pressure was incredible, but if you came through that, you had a reason to believe you were the best. As a collective, we started to believe no other pack could live with us.

“I doubt other teams got to the same extremes. I remember how we prepared for the 2009 Lions. The live scrumming sessions became heated to the point where a couple of fights broke out. A few guys got their egos bruised, but we started to see the benefit of training at that intensity.

“By the first Test, we were on a completely different level. And you saw what happened in that game.”

Indeed, Mtawarira’s victory over Phil Vickery set the tone for the rest of the match, which the Boks went on to win.

One of the keys to South Africa’s success was squad management.

Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have rotated the group to avoid mental and physical burnout, with the aim of maximising team performance.

The “Bomb Squad” was first unleashed at the 2019 World Cup. Eddie Jones noted how the Boks were saving arguably their best tight five for the second half of big matches.

In 2023, Erasmus and Nienaber included as many as seven forwards among their substitutes, aiming to boost their scrum, lineout and breakdown in the dying stages of a contest.

By the end of the 2019 World Cup, everyone understood the Bomb Squad tactic. Back in early 2018, however, the players themselves weren’t initially convinced.

Castle Lager Outgoing Tour: Springbok Training Session
Former Scotland prop Matt Proudfoot oversaw the lethal Bok scrummage in 2019 before joining Eddie Jones’ England staff (Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

“Rassie came in and reminded us about the Springbok code of conduct, and what it says about putting the team ahead of your personal ambitions,” explains Mtawarira. “He said there would be rotation.

“I’m not going to lie, it took myself and a few others a while to grasp the idea of not playing every game, or playing some games from the bench. I wanted that ‘1’ on my back, and I wanted to play most of the game.

“Again, Rassie challenged us to change our thinking. If he decided to sub one of us after 30 minutes, it didn’t necessarily mean we had played badly. The data might suggest a different player would prove more effective against a particular opponent at a specific moment of the game.

“Rassie made it clear these substitutions weren’t personal. We came to appreciate that as the months progressed.”

Erasmus also empowered players to take responsibility for was needed to earn an edge.

“He encouraged us to analyse individual referees as well as opponents,” confirms Mtawarira. “For example, if we were playing Japan in the World Cup quarter-final in 2019, and Wayne Barnes was the referee, we had to be mindful of how he officiated. Did he reward the dominant scrum, was he more technical than other referees?

“Rassie also pushed us to communicate with one another, and then Bongi or Malcolm – who alternated as the scrum captain – would communicate with the referee. In that way, we knew what was needed to maintain our dominance, or whether we needed to adapt to ensure a different outcome.”

The Boks are going out to dominate, and once they’re in a position of strength, they’re going for the throat.

A few changes were made to the coaching staff after 2019, with Daan Human replacing Proudfoot and Deon Davids bolstering the forwards department. Recent performances suggest the Boks have taken their scrummaging to unprecedented heights.

“You can’t really compare scrum coaches, but we really enjoyed working with Daan,” says Malherbe. “He’s not just a quality coach, but a special human being. He made sure we bought into the process every single week.”

Human won four Test caps for the Boks in 2002. He was a well-established front-row by the time he departed the Stormers for Toulouse in 2004, and took his education to the next level over the course of a 169-game stint in France.

Erasmus often talks about the need for warriors in the South African set-up, and this applies to coaches as well as players. When Proudfoot moved on, Human filled the void with his technical knowledge and his appreciation of the physical and mental battle.

Former Bok hooker and Stormers scrum consultant Hanyani Shimange knows what it’s like to be in the middle of that melee.

“When you talk about the Bok scrum, you’re talking about an honest scrum,” he says.

“In this system, the impact of the hooker should not be underestimated. Bongi is a strong scrummaging hooker, as is Malcolm. They generate the speed and pin the opposition down and create momentum for their prop to attack.

“There’s no attempt to walk around the opposition or any other tricks. And when they persist with a style like that, they start to build a reputation and show the refs they aren’t trying to go anywhere but straight through their opponents.

“There isn’t a lot of rubbish spoken to opponents on game day, because they know they don’t have a lot of time in that situation and can’t afford to waste it. You need to use that time to communicate with your team-mates or the referee.

“All of this speaks to the culture and environment that’s been created by the coaches. The Boks are going out to dominate, and once they’re in a position of strength, they’re going for the throat. Everyone buys into that.”

England’s scrum buckled beneath the Springboks’ awesome pressure in the semi-final (Photo by ANTONIN THUILLIER/AFP via Getty Images)

Late in the first half of the quarter-final against France, the Boks were struggling to get a foothold in the game. When full-back Damian Willemse called for a mark, he pushed his fists together to signify a scrum.

The decision has been analysed at length. It’s a risky call, given any infringement may have resulted in France scoring points. But it highlights the Boks’ unshakeable faith in their scrum. The fists gesture has since been adopted by many South African fans determined to celebrate such a bold mindset.

“If there’s one scrum that stands out from that World Cup, it’s the one that followed the mark,” says Malherbe. “We then won a penalty from that scrum.”

Malherbe is understated. Shimange offers a more emphatic description of what transpired.

“That will be remembered as one of the most iconic moments of the World Cup,” he says. “It was a massive statement, especially against a French side that loves to scrum. It showed the belief of the pack, and the belief of the whole team in the pack.”

Malherbe speaks more freely about the collective’s achievements over the course of the campaign in France.

“We went into that tournament with a massive attacking mindset. We called it ‘the will to dominate’.

“It’s more than just the front row, it’s the back five. I don’t think they have got enough credit for what they did to win those scrum battles.

“Some locks and loose forwards will use the scrum to have a rest before play opens up. Our players, however, go into that scrum with the intent to put pressure on the opposition.”

The opposition might survive the first half, but they often succumb to the attack that follows.

Shimange notes the impact of the scrum on the campaign as a whole. The Boks laid down a marker in the opening game against Scotland, winning six scrum penalties in an 18-3 victory.

“The Boks dominated the scrum for most of the first half, until Scotland won two penalties in a row at the end and celebrated.

“Something must have been said at half-time, because you could see the anger in the forwards’ eyes when they came back out. They took the fight to Scotland from the next scrum, and from there, they never relinquished their position of dominance.”

The scrum battle influenced the outcome of the quarter-final against France and the semi-final against England. The set-piece contest against the All Blacks in the decider, however, was far closer.

The Boks were awarded a scrum in the last minute of the game, deep in their own half. Had they conceded a penalty, the All Blacks would have had the chance to snatch victory.

“That final scrum was an interesting one,” says Shimange. “The All Blacks actually beat the Boks to the hit initially, but Faf de Klerk, with all his experience, decided to hold onto the ball instead of putting it in. Both front rows went down, and they had to reset.

“Those little things can make a big difference. A less knowledgeable or experienced scrum-half may have rushed to put the ball in, especially in such a high-pressure situation. Credit to Faf for keeping his cool.”

After all that’s transpired between 2018 and 2023, a strong case could be made for the Bok scrum as the most dominant in modern history.

“They’re certainly the most dominant scrum I’ve seen in world rugby,” says Shimange. “It’s hard to think of another team that comes close.

“The opposition might survive the first half, but they often succumb to the attack that follows, via the bench, in the second.”

South Africa
The bulk of Rassie Erasmus’ pack could feature again in the 2027 edition (Photo by Adam Pretty – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

The Boks have returned to their franchises after a three-week break, and the focus will shift to the United Rugby Championship and Champions Cup in the months ahead.

Longer term, the national side will look to the 2027 World Cup – where they could achieve an unprecedented “three-peat”.

Unless the laws are changed and the scrum is depowered, the Boks will have the opportunity to build on their legacy.

“I see no reason to slow down now,” says Mtawarira. “South Africa are fortunate to have so many excellent front-rowers coming through the pipeline.

“The past few years have been great, but I’m really excited about what the Bok scrum can achieve in the future.”

Proudfoot has a slightly different take. Vermeulen may have retired, but it wouldn’t surprise him to see many of the forwards who starred returning for the next global campaign.

“I walked a long road with some of those players, at the Stormers and then the Boks. Steven has always been strong, but he’s developed to the point where you rarely see opposition teams putting him under pressure. He’s 31 now, and his best scrummaging years are ahead of him.

“Frans [32] is a bit like those batsmen in cricket that never get flustered and seem to have all the time in the world. He just takes every challenge in his stride. He is without a doubt the best tighthead in the world. Like Steven, his best years are still ahead. Vincent Koch [33] is another who has some good scrummaging years left in him.

“I’m sure Rassie and co will look to develop the younger front-rankers, and we may see them getting game time. The beauty of South Africa’s teams competing in the URC is these young forwards are regularly exposed to that northern hemisphere challenge, and the northern style of officiating – which is a lot closer to Test rugby.

“That said, a lot of the current Bok players have another World Cup in them. That pack won’t change a hell of a lot over the next four years, and collectively, that unit will grow even stronger.”

For England, and indeed all of South Africa’s future opponents, that is a daunting prospect.

Comments

21 Comments
N
Noelene 210 days ago

Great post. Thank you!! My Uncle was the Flying Dentist, Wilf Rosenberg, great man and Springbok.

J
Jon 211 days ago

Well, sorry to be a downer guys, but Ian Foster said the All Blacks actually have the best scrum in the world.

Very interesting question about whether the laws should be changed. I believe they should. Unless there can be laws that make the contest at scrum more straightforward to rule, say binding shoulder pads for the front row, you should not be able to score points directly off the scrum, imo. It puts too much pressure on the game, refs especially.

That doesn’t mean they need to be depowered however, I see no problems with their safety. In fact they should be empowered more, and see as a viable means of gaining field position. Award 5 or 10 meters field position of any scrum not adequately defended against would be a really fun way to reward scrummaging sides. Just imagine whats going to happen after 3 successive scrums and 30 meters rolling territory gains. The backline is going to be in prime attacking territory and the forwards are going to be absolutely stuffed.

m
michael 211 days ago

the most important part of this strategy is to sit down every 60 seconds for 60 seconds the writer did not mention the roster the eight forwards had to take their sit down in an organised manner this was the biggest part of this tactic they even had a roster coach william webb ellis picked up the ball in 1823 ran for 5 metres then sat down with an “injury” 60 seconds later he miraculuosly recovered picked up the ball ran for 5 metres sat down injured etc he had invented a new game Sitdown

B
Brett 211 days ago

Your scrum or your team wasn’t better than the abs you just got lucky. The biggest loser of the day was rugby itself having that boring crap you call rugby win. Now the NH will believe they on the right track since they don’t know how to pass a ball either. Maybe SA could find a way to get their fat arses to the line out a bit quicker as well so the paying public gets value for money

J
Jon 211 days ago

Kitzy Bongi and Frans are likely too old to feature again. Need to develop 2 young props and a spare hooker to spell MM

J
JJGhost 211 days ago

Cue Kiwi commenters whinging, and GO!:

F
Fish Food 211 days ago

Feel like we should adapt that old Churchill quote and say that “Never in the pursuit of Springbok glory was so much owed by so many to so few”. Our glorious front row Boks!

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