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FEATURE How the All Blacks ball runners bested the Springboks at their own game

How the All Blacks ball runners bested the Springboks at their own game
1 year ago

It was the great 19th-century Prussian war strategist and military thinker Helmuth Von Moltke who first stated that “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” No matter how far you look ahead, no matter how deeply you cater for every possible contingency in your preparation, events in the battle itself will always be unexpected. At times, chaos will reign and you will be out on your own in a no man’s land, in the ‘fog of war’.

At least, that is the theory. After the highly-touted Rugby Championship ‘decider’ between the All Blacks and the Springboks at Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland, the New Zealand coaches may still be shaking their heads. They would not have believed how well their plans turned out in that first quarter.

If you had told them beforehand that they would be 17-0 up after 17 minutes, having enjoyed over 90 per cent of possession in that period, they would have had to wipe their spectacles and take a second look, and double-check whether it was really true. Almost everything that the All Blacks tried, came off in that golden period.

The fog of war did not descend until much later, until the 35th minute of the first half. Even when the Springbok comeback did finally begin to roll off the tracks in earnest, it came via three points and a penalty goal, rather than the seven-point try South Africa really wanted.

Will Jordan of New Zealand makes a run during The Rugby Championship match between the New Zealand All Blacks and South Africa Springboks at Mt Smart Stadium on July 15, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

The unmistakable mix of obvious satisfaction, and barely-hidden incredulity was present in head coach Ian Foster’s tone of voice at the post-match press conference:

“We’re pretty delighted with our response to the challenge [from South Africa]. We showed a lot of intention, we had a desire to play, and that was exciting.

“We obviously stung them at the start with the tempo at which we were able to play – our desire to play on top of them early was there and we got good reward for it…

“It does reflect on a team that is pretty clear in its objectives right now, about how we want to play.

“You always want to start strong, we have always wanted to do that, but right now, I just loved the attitude to go out and play [right from the kick-off], and not to let them come at us first.

“If we start the game with that mind-set, it will [yield points] more often than not.

”Where you get confidence is in building the blocks in your own game, and we will take that.”

If there was one single item on the New Zealand menu which will have delighted Foster and his two principal lieutenants, Joe Schmidt and Jason Ryan, more than any other, it will be the sturdiness and variety of the All Blacks’ attacking structure, under pressure from the quickest and most resilient rush defence in world rugby.

Let’s offer a simple statistical frame of reference for that conclusion, comparing the top three contributions from first receiver on either side during the game:

The New Zealand half of the table is clearly more balanced than South Africa’s. There is better distribution between keeping ball in hand and kicking it, and there is an additional complement between the two expert No 10s in the All Blacks (Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett) and a primary ball-handling forward (blindside flanker Shannon Frizell).

In contrast, the Springboks left most of the play-making duties to their fullback Willie le Roux while relegating the nominal flyhalf, Damian Willemse, to a bit-part role outside him. There was no kicking element and without Pieter-Steph du Toit there was no ball-playing forward in the equation: the ‘third man’ in the pecking order being Manie Libbok, the Springboks’ bench No 10. With Le Roux committed to passing the ball 90 per cent of the time, it made South Africa’s attack far more predictable than that of their opponents. It meant they could not make the second pass as effectively as New Zealand.

Let’s look at how it worked out in practice:

The attacking shape at the start of the sequence lacks any obvious connectivity if the Springboks want to move the ball beyond first receiver, or create any uncertainty in the defence. Le Roux has turned his body early in the direction of the intended recipient (second row Lood de Jager) so the All Blacks can write him off as a runner immediately. The big bearded lock is the only forward offering himself in the pod outside the South African fullback while behind him, Cheslin Kolbe is already running away from the play. Damian Willemse is out of the picture entirely, so there are no options at all outside one forward in the front line of attack.

The first two plays are telegraphed, and there is a lot of South African pain for no gain at all. It does not get any better on third phase, with Le Roux’s body-shape leading the Kiwi defenders into Damian de Allende outside him. The outcome would have been a winning New Zealand counter-ruck, but for an earlier penalty advantage.

Even after a 20-metre ground-gain from a first phase scrum later in the half, South Africa was either unable or unwilling to make the second pass on the next play:

Willemse was available, though once again out-of-shot on second phase, but the ball is passed straight to isolated number 8 Jasper Wiese instead, and the All Blacks gleefully pick up all of the loose pieces at the ensuing tackle and breakdown.

Wiese is the type of forward who will tuck the ball under one arm and charge straight ahead, and South Africa’s loose forward selection let themselves short of a ball-handler. On SuperSport’s Final Whistle program, the Springboks’ attack consultant Swys de Bruin commented:

“If you look at [Springboks No 7] Franco Mostert, he’s a lock, he says he’s 1.98m but I think he’s 1.96m. He’s a big boy.

“Kwagga [Smith] is not that lanky but he’s as strong as anything. Wiese was the star player in Europe. He’s the man there.

“So on paper, that should be a perfect combination.”

None of those players has the right mix of carrying and handling skills to man the middle of the near forward pod and provide a link outside it, so the selection of Pieter-Steph du Toit was mandatory in that role.

The home side had encountered a similar scenario to Wiese in only the second minute of the game. The All Blacks ensured they made the second pass, and that the receiver had options around him when he got the ball:

The shape at the line is compact and there are three backs facing forward, ready for the ball delivered out of the forward pod. In the centre of it all – as he was throughout the game – is No 6 Shannon Frizell, who immediately picks up the dogleg developing in the South African line as it rushes upfield. De Jager is lagging behind the two men on either side of him and Frizell has the exceptional footwork needed to convert opportunity into line-break.

Frizell’s decision-making in his role was essential during that golden spell at the start of the match:


After brushing off Kwagga Smith, the red mist could easily descend and the big blindside flank look for more contact, but he realises that there is more potential in keeping the ball alive via the offload. That opens up space down the left 5-metre corridor with some quick hands on the following play.

Another hard carry by Frizell fanned the flames that eventually led to New Zealand’s first score of the game:

The All Blacks continued to show a lot of variety out of the same basic attacking shape:

In this case, the space is in behind the South African front line, and Richie Mo’unga accelerates right through the pod of forwards ahead of him to become first man to the ball. The outcome was another try, this time scored in the most emphatic fashion by the man who most richly deserved it.

As skipper Sam Cane put it after the game:

“[For the first 20 minutes] We were able to execute a lot of what he had planned, which isn’t always the case in Test matches. We won the initial collisions, our [attacking] breakdown was good and that allowed us to move the ball into space. Maybe [that] nullified their line-speed a wee bit, and we were able to go ‘bang, bang’ a couple of times.”

‘Bang, bang’ indeed. The All Blacks got their attacking shape so very right in Auckland, and the Springboks got it badly wrong. It was like night and day watching the two sides trying to work the ball beyond first receiver on attack.

If Jacques Nienaber had to reselect his side with the benefit of hindsight, there is little doubt that both Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen would be in the starting back-row. Franco Mostert and Jasper Wiese tend to play straight down the tunnel in front of them, and neither possess either Du Toit’s ball-handling skills or the great Duane’s tactical awareness.

Outside the forwards, fullback Willie le Roux played most of the game at first receiver, with No 10 Damian Willemse left kicking his heels on the periphery of events. It was not a success and it is hard to know why it was considered a viable option in the first place.

It looked a whole lot worse with the cohesion provided by Richie Mo’unga, Beauden Barrett and Shannon Frizell showing up so well in contrast. In that golden first quarter, the All Blacks had no issues with shifting the ball beyond first receiver on their own terms, and that sounds the death-knell for any self-respecting rush defence.

In the World Cup game of ‘Snakes and Ladders’, New Zealand’s preparation just took the high-rise elevator, while their fiercest rivals in the Southern Hemisphere slithered backwards – if not to square one, at least to the place where they must now reconsider whether their squad depth is as formidable as they thought before the game ever started.


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finn 369 days ago

it seemed like the all blacks were standing really deep on attack, particularly when playing through BB - or am I overstating this?

I assume that this would be a better strategy against a team playing a bitz defence (because you can get the ball quickly to the winger, or chipped over the defence) than it would against a team with lower defensive linespeed (who can easily drift to cover the flanks, and who will have more players back to cover kicks). It will be interesting to see whether they adapt their approach when playing Ireland.

Jon 369 days ago

Night and Day, between the two AB performances. Trickery one week, directness the next. Planned to a tee with player and opposition selection.

I like the new found ruthlessness to continue box kick through to the end of the game. They've also thrown away their lousy attempts at a short passing game between the forwards, so now when they're doing it it's because they're playing heads up footy and finding the unmarked runner, instead of telegraphing that person as the runner to the defence. Which, along with the more specialised roles, has resulted in them no longer going backwards as much, as well busting tackles more.

Despite what would seem plausible with all the recent headlines, I think weve seen a few of these performances throughout the 4 year building of this team. If I'm honest, my thought is that a large contributor was the approach the Springboks might have had leading up, and I'm not talking about the split. Not what SA needed to keep there momentum building if they were going to go back to back. Raynal was also an absolute lottery, avoiding making calls, and when rugby is able to flow NZ always strike me as the team that enjoys this benifits most.

For anyone who didn't have their volume up, take a listen to the mana cry from Ardie at the 32min mark gif. Thats a big fish to be throwing in ice bin.

Highlander 369 days ago

Really nice Nick, wasn’t sure I had ever seen a SA side go sideways as much they did on Saturday. Easier to see in the pics.
Was quite impressed with the AB gainline D too, SA second half reserve forwards had 18 carry’s for 17 metres. Nicely backed up that attack.
As you note, don’t believe the AB coaches could imagine so much would work so quickly.

Dawid 369 days ago

Thanks for a lovely breakdown. As a springbok supporter, Im almost ok with this loss. The tactics and gameplan from the all blacks was clearly a well prepped and coached sequence, that exploited the Bok’s confidence in their game plan. Disrupted them for a crucial 20 minutes without an alternative to fall back to easily, and it took them till the second half for a hard reset before they got back in the game.

It was a simple case of being out coached on the day, which is both very impressive from NZ and fixable by SA. It makes for a juicy match up in the future, and shows SA needs to find a way to switch it up without solely relying on a bomb squad, but also that the comeback from SA can be fierce and effective under pressure if an opponent has a less significant lead.

Come World Cup, (IMHO) the SH teams will have an advantage of being deep in the swing of these things while other teams are still warming up. France and Ireland are still favourites but will be sitting up, furiously taking notes.

Wallabies_Larkham 369 days ago

I have to say Nick, my prediction is French will top the group and AB will be second. Irish clan will meet AB in QF and if Master Sexton is playing will knock them out. French will knock Boklings out because Bokke will try an expansive style to surprise them. But it takes a lot of time and effort to get the balance right and they have started experimenting with it only last year which is too late.

Wallabies_Larkham 369 days ago

Hi Nick, it seems BBB during AB plays is used a lot for those kicks to the wing position (he did something similar against red roses last year for Rieko's try) when your defenses are so compact. You could say he does it too stretch that defense making it vulnerable so at some point you would expect them to do it during the match. It will be interesting to see how French flair counter it. The French winger Penaud should be able to read that as I think he has aerial skills. I am not sure how good Villiere is in the air. They can perhaps try Teddy Thomas but will lose Villiere turnover ability.

JD Kiwi 369 days ago

What I really liked was how the All Blacks coaches identified where the space was and came up with a plan to get the ball there. And how good the offensive breakdown was.

Snash 369 days ago

Denying Kolbe was a travesty, how on earth did the TMO get that wrong! Incomprehensible.

john 370 days ago

The All Blacks have peaked too early.

The Boks were having a mare. This is what happens when Erasmus leaves it to Neinbar. The All Blacks won't have it quite so easy next time.

Otagoman II 370 days ago

Thanks NB, my man Frizell not much needs to be said other than he is leaving after the cup for Japan. I don't get the selection of Williamse in the 10 jersey if he is barely going to be the first receiver. They might as well swap the jersey numbers with him and Le Roux.

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