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FEATURE South Africa's brawn-plus-brain puts rugby world on red alert

South Africa's brawn-plus-brain puts rugby world on red alert
9 months ago

When the All Blacks beat the Springboks at Mount Smart Stadium in the climactic second round of the 2023 Rugby Championship, it looked very much as if a definitive story had been told. They won 35-20, and were 17-0 ahead after only 20 minutes. The book covers had been closed with a resounding thud, and that was all she wrote.

In fact, after events at Twickenham on Friday evening, that match in Auckland has turned out to be nothing more than the opening chapter to a much more complex narrative – one which could yet lead to a quarter-final between the same two old foes at the World Cup. The book is still very much open.

There are no foregone conclusions between New Zealand and South Africa. Although New Zealand is often considered the greatest rugby nation on earth, in the amateur era – up until the World Cup final on that historic afternoon at Ellis Park on 24th June 1995 – South Africa matched them, blow for blow.

They even enjoyed a slight edge in the rivalry for the first 75 years, winning 21 matches to New Zealand’s 18. Both countries have won three World Cups apiece, but South Africa have participated in two fewer tournaments.

The All Blacks gained the upper hand in the early stages of the professional era, winning 39 of the 53 games between 1996 and 2017, with Springbok misery culminating a 57-0 shutout at Albany back in the 2017 Rugby Championship.

Since the arrival of Rassie Erasmus as head coach and/or director of rugby in 2018, and after a move north by all four of the major South African Super Rugby franchises, some order has been restored.

Over the last five years, the record stands at four wins for the Springboks and five for the All Blacks with one draw. There is, once again, a hair’s breadth between the proudest of rugby nations. Since 2018, there is an average of less than one point per game between the two sides over the last 10 encounters. Everything is as it should be, and the traditionally finely-balanced historical equilibrium has returned.

The Boks’ motto will be ‘anything you can do, we can do a little better’ after the 35-7 demolition job at Twickenham. In the process, they proved a point which had been made by the ex-All Blacks forwards coach John Plumtree earlier in the year. With the benefit of hindsight, ‘Plum’s’ words hit the bullseye:

“It [Super Rugby 2023] is not the same flavour; the physicality is down.

“You still get the odd good game and derby game, but unfortunately the Australians, apart from the Brumbies, haven’t really lived up to being competition for the top sides in New Zealand.

“The Springboks and South African sides are certainly missed.”

The New Zealand forwards had already given up 10 penalties (two each at the scrum and breakdown, and four in defence of the lineout drive), plus two yellow cards within the first 17 minutes of the game. Over the piece, they lost six scrum penalties and lost five of their own lineout throws. ‘Man-handling’ was too kind a term for it.

There was rather more than a clear hint the current iteration of Super Rugby does not expose All Blacks to the challenges they will face from South Africa or even teams from the northern hemisphere.

New Zealand players no longer come into regular contact with the type of defensive patterns employed by their counterparts from South Africa, which represent a huge difference from anything they experience domestically.

The All Blacks did not adjust well to the unfamiliar pressure from the Springbok outside backs knifing sharply infield on to loose passes, just as they had done in Cardiff against Wales the previous weekend.


That warning from number 13 Canan Moodie went unheeded. It transformed into a try for Kurt-Lee Arendse five minutes later

Arendse has no intention of ‘respecting the break’ by Jordie Barrett and dropping back to mark the width of the field on the next play. His one aim is to stay in the middle and cut off the pass to Will Jordan.

It is the aspects of set-piece forward play which will be causing worried frowns on the faces of Jase Ryan and Ian Foster when they come to review the match. They will be concerned about the leg injury to starting tight-head prop Tyrel Lomax, about the three scrum penalties conceded by their run-on loose-head Ethan De Groot, and the obvious travails of their young prop replacements Fletcher Newell and Tamaiti Williams when they appeared off the bench to face the redoubtable ‘bomb squad’.


The way the Springboks went about their business of dismantling the New Zealand lineout maul defence was even more impressive. As Foster commented post-game: “We got squeezed and exposed. But if we could choose one trophy not to have in our cabinet at the end of the year, it would be this one. You couldn’t help but be impressed with what they did, they really got stuck into us.

“Their physicality and their set-piece was superb, and they had a massive game at scrum and line-out time. That was a big difference.”

The bulk of the four early penalties conceded by New Zealand in lineout defence were for premature drives on the receiver or his lifters. Either the catcher was not allowed to return to terra firma.

Or, the New Zealand number three at the front of the lineout crept up early on the side to stop any momentum towards the corner flag.

In the first screenshot, Franco Mostert still has his back-side off the ground up in the air, and that is a signpost flagging up ‘early drive’ to the referee Matt Carley. By the time Newell came off the bench to replace the injured Lomax, the Springboks were already devising methods to counter that early creep-and-stop at the front.


As soon as number 18 Newell commits to Springbok prop Steven Kitshoff, South Africa work a neat shift drive around him, quickly bypassing the roadblock. That position led to the first try of the game by Siya Kolisi.

At the beginning of the second period, South Africa demonstrated that they had unearthed other, even more impactful methods of circumventing the obstacles around the front of lineout.

As soon as Newell and Ardie Savea stick their heads in, that is the cue for the Boks to work the ball instantly off the back of the drive and give Kolisi and Malcolm Marx a two-on-one against Aaron Smith near the sideline. It was a sign that South Africa were thinking their way through the questions the All Blacks were posing, rather than just trying to knock the front door down by pure force of arms. The Springboks were coaxing the All Blacks in the direction they thought they wanted to go.

The black blocking wall is rolling infield as designed, but it only creates a bigger short-side for Kolisi and Marx to exploit.

South Africa came up with yet another solution near the hour mark.

On this occasion, the Boks wait for Newell to angle in on the short side, then skip around to the open side, before they redirect the drive towards the vacant space around the corner of the maul he would have been guarding. Brawn-plus-brain always works better than brawn operating alone, and that was the most impressive aspect of the South African performance in their final dress-rehearsal before the real action begins against Scotland on September 8th.

It was probably the kick up the backside the All Blacks needed before the tournament proper, but the comprehensive nature of the defeat will still have come as a shock to their collective psyche. Under pressure, it will make the little leaks of self-doubt more likely to emerge and enlarge. If they start to bleed, it may be hard to stem.

Now there is more uncertainty about the quality of the back-up behind both of their first-choice props. The structures at all three of lineout, scrum and maul will need a revisit, and some reconsideration by Ryan, and that is an unexpected development.

The Springbok coaches will be pleased their new generation of sinuous, multi-skilled backs – such as Manie Libbok, Damian Willemse, Moodie and Arendse – took another big step forward, and they may be even more excited their forwards found ways around obstacles when they were unable to smash straight through them.

As the notorious gangster Al Capone reputedly said, “You get a lot more from a kind word and a gun, than from a kind word alone.” At the old cabbage patch on a memorable Friday evening, the Springboks had both the power to dominate and the cleverness to cajole, and it has put all the other contenders on red alert for the tournament to come.


Christ 293 days ago

Portugal gonna win this World Cup :)

Shaylen 294 days ago

Nick I loved your thoughts on the mauls. This is one area that looks like brute force to the untrained eye but all the shifts, the twists and the clever little plays around it are usually missed. The Boks were razor sharp there and given that they weren't the best with their mauls in the rugby championship it was refreshing to see them mix it up. I wonder what other surprises they will have in store for us come the world cup. This is definitely a team aiming to peak at the right time as they did in 2019.

Derek Murray 294 days ago

Love the detail on how the Boks adjusted to the AB 3 pushing in to close off the blind side edge of the maul. And then how they utilised that to create a total mismatch in the space it created.

Antoni 294 days ago

Enjoyable read Nick. A lot is made of the weakening of Super Rugby without the South African teams. The premise is the South African teams bring a harder edge to the tournament. Given that a large number of the Springbok actually play their club rugby in Japan (2022 - Malcolm Marx, Lood de Jager, Franco Mostert, Kwagga Smith, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Faf de Klerk, Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende and fullback Willie le Roux), I suspect that this is just a 'rugby myth'. The All Blacks discipline was very poor. Two lineout penalties in quick succession for driving before the catcher was on the ground was out of character. The succession of penalties resulted in two yellow cards and then a red card. Almost every team that has too many players sitting on the sideline, especially at the top level, is going to be well beaten.

Fish Food 294 days ago

Great read, thanks. Your thinking is more considered and way more intelligent than Jeff Wilson! That Springbok domination of the All Blacks left skidmarks in coaching underpants all over Europe.

Mitch 294 days ago

It's not rocket science but when these two sides have faced off over the last 12 months or so, the team that has started better and got the game on their terms early has ended up winning somewhat comfortably.

CT 294 days ago

Good read thanks 👍

GrahamVF 294 days ago

You have just hit the nail on the head. When SA left Super Rugby the writing was on the wall, and I'm afraid it is of the Kiwi bosses own making. To be fair they are between a rock and a hard place. If they continue playing a dreadfully weakened competition week after week eventually and inevitably the standard of rugby will go down. But on the other hand if they allowed players operating overseas to be picked for the AB's it would weaken their domestic competition even further and the advantage the AB's have had for decades, namely that all their franchise teams play AB rugby, will be gone. South Africa, Ireland and Scotland have all benefitted hugely from SA teams playing in the north. And it has salved a big SA gripe - SA provided a far bigger slice of TV income than Oz or NZ but they weren't rewarded equitably. The money flowing into SA coffers with the URC is very very encouraging and it also means that SA players in northern franchises are part of the same competition so they interact and can be monitored closely with SA rugby leadership on a weekly basis. NZ will just have to change it's policy and possible the only way to do that is to trim Super Rugby to eight teams maximum to keep a strength vs strength competition.

JD Kiwi 295 days ago

At least we're not favourites for once...

john 295 days ago

The Australian super rugby teams that Plumtree likes to disparage have been mainly coached, or is that sabotaged by, kiwis for the last decade. What a twit.

NZ has outsmarted itself with it's manic obsession to undermine Australian rugby and now can't understand why they aren't competitive after only playing against substandard competition, that they created.

The education system in NZ is still, clearly struggling. Dumb a.......

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