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FEATURE What the All Blacks will have learned from Springboks' set-piece battle

What the All Blacks will have learned from Springboks' set-piece battle
8 months ago

If it had been a fight, it would have been a junkyard brawl. The Marquis of Queensbury rules do not apply. The semi-final between England and South Africa was not fought out in the multi-skilled sunshine of Ireland versus New Zealand, or Les Bleus against the Springboks just one week before.

England took the Boks into the back alley and pummelled away at set-piece, in the maul and under the high ball. It was enough to make the rugby purist feel more than a little dirty. Less than 32 minutes of ball-in-play time, jolting stop-starts with fleets of water-carriers sailing across the field of play at every stoppage, 70 open-field kicks (41 by the men in white) at a rate of nearly one per minute.

It was the kind of match where the strengths of both sides are the same and tend to cancel each other out; where the gunfight is narrowed down, gimlet-eyed, to a few key areas. Space was quite literally for the birds, with the entire 80 minutes scarcely containing one back-line move worthy of the name – and that suited Steve Borthwick’s charges very nicely indeed. No vivid contrasts or clash of styles, no creative fire; just muscle on muscle, and a battle fought out in the micro-details of trench warfare. It was old-school Leicester Tigers theatre at Welford Road, down to its bootlaces.

Until the last half-hour of the game, England won the tactical battle hands-down. Springbok skipper Siya Kolisi generously paid tribute to their opponents after the match:

“England did so well in the kicking game, they outplayed us in that. Our discipline was awful in the first half, especially in the key areas where they could take the points. But I thought we fought back in the second half, we showed who we are and what we can do with a full 23.”

Freddie Steward of England tries to take control of the ball during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between England and South Africa at Stade de France on October 21, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by RvS.Media/Sylvie Failletaz/Getty Images)

It was more than just the kicking game. Kolisi might have added England’s domination of the maul and their security at the scrum, at least with the starting front rows on the pitch. Up until the 53rd minute, with England winning by 15 points to 6 on the scoreboard, the men in white

  • Won back an astonishing eight out the 10 contestable kicks they launched
  • Gave up zero turnovers from South African contestable kicks
  • Turned over three South African lineout throws
  • Won the only scrum penalty with the starting front rows on the field

Just after the hour mark, England’s kicking game was still going well, and eight out of 10 had become 10 out of 12 reclaims from their own high kicks. But the introduction of Ox Nche in the 53rd minute changed everything at scrum-time, just as I had suggested it might in my preview article.

It also coincided with a subtle change of momentum at maul-time. England had used the template set out by the All Blacks in their warm-up game versus the Boks at Twickenham, but they improved the timing and cohesion of the effort at the front compared to the All Blacks:

Like the men in black, England plan to overload the blocking of Steven Kitshoff underneath the receiver Eben Etzebeth. They have their tighthead prop, Dan Cole, occupying the attention of the flame-haired prop on one side and second row George Martin is already swimming up the seam on the other. But unlike the All Blacks, they are not making contact or creeping up the side before the catcher has returned to terra firma. The set-up paid immediate dividends with Boks camped close to the England goal-line:


Cole pulls Kitshoff away from the right side of the drive, and first Martin and then Maro Itoje flood through into the avenue of attack that has been created. Jamie George provides the finishing flourish, locking up the ball on the deck. Turnover England.

The outcome less than one minute later was strikingly similar:


The combined forces of Cole and Martin run Kitshoff out of the play completely and Itoje penetrates into the heart of the maul. After the Springboks were forced to play away from their favourite weapon on next phase, Franco Mostert promptly knocked the ball forward in the carry.

Just as they had done at Twickenham, South Africa eventually thought their way through the issues at the lineout drive and came up with a great solution for the only try of the game:


With England concentrating their effort on the short-side of the drive, South Africa shift the ball quickly around the wide side through Deon Fourie, an area where the defence is too narrow. Quick ball creates a much easier opportunity for RG Snyman on the carry than slow ball did for Mostert in the earlier instance:

The addition of Nche to the Springboks front row was a huge key in turning the tables at scrum-time. Where the old king of the set-piece, Dan Cole, had been enjoying his afternoon’s work against Kitshoff, creating the platform for secure English ball and even winning a penalty, he came under immediate pressure from the Ox:


This turnover prompted the replacement of the Tigers man by Bristolian Kyle Sinckler, but things went from bad to worse as the English reserve front row conceded a string of four consecutive penalties against the ‘Bomb Squad’:


The angle-of-packing before the feed by Springboks bench tighthead Vincent Koch – steeply inside and underneath Jamie George’s chin – is more visible in the overhead shot than it was to referee Ben O’Keefe at ground level. So is Nche’s cheeky sidestep to optimise his slant in to Sinckler – with the official on the other side of the scrum.

The England rake was moved to have rather more than a word with O’Keefe at one break in play – ‘they are taking a step left, their heads are on the outside’ – but his words fell on deaf ears as proceedings reached a climax:


Koch sets inside before the feed and by the end of the scrum he is pushing east-west rather than north-south. His opposite number Ellis Genge would argue that he has no option but to follow Koch inside if he is to play any further useful part in the scrum, and there is no doubt Andrew Porter would agree after his experience in the quarter-final versus New Zealand. Where else is the loosehead supposed to go?

Handre Pollard kicked the goal from 50 metres and South Africa won the game by a single point, but the larger issue of whether technical scrum penalties should decide such big games loomed like a long shadow. As outspoken ex-Scotland coach Matt Williams commented on Virgin Media Sport after the match, “I think there were some appalling refereeing decisions on the scrum penalties. I sympathise with referee Ben O’Keefe, who is being put under so much pressure, but we are not getting justice.

“South Africa should not have been there [in the semi-final] on justice last week and there were some real tough penalties out there tonight. When we are talking about penalties deciding games, that is a really bad place to be…

“You have two sides [to the argument]. You have the way that England and South Africa play, and you have the other side, the way that France, Ireland and New Zealand play. So, you are going to come to a final where you’ve got the two philosophies opposed next week.”

The scrum is a total mess from beginning to end, from set-up to outcome. Is there really a penalty that deserves to decide the fate of the game? I doubt it. As ex-Ireland back Ian Madigan added in response to Williams:

“He [O’Keefe] set out his stall – ‘look I think South Africa have dominance here’ – and every scrum they got in the last hour was a penalty to them. Once he’s made up his mind, he’s only looking for an England infringement.”

Referee, Ben O’Keeffe watches the scrum during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 semi final match between England and South Africa at Stade de France on October 21, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Maybe only Ben O’Keefe himself will know the truth of that judgement. But it was certainly a situation in which common sense could have been applied – if in doubt, stay out – and let the players play, or call for a reset. That is after all, what referees have been doing to very positive effect over the course of this World Cup – forcing teams to play away from the scrums wherever possible, rather than jumping in with a penalty award.

There can be no doubt about the fact that South Africa deserves its spot in the final. They are one of the four nations who could realistically have expected to win the whole shebang going in, and they overcame the hosts at the quarter-final stage to do it.

The Springboks showed tremendous grit and character after being manhandled in so many key areas by a tactically-informed England team for the better part of an hour. They lost the kicking battle and the lineout and the maul, but England’s satisfaction at advancing in threes, rather than fives or sevens, cost them dearly.

Like all champions sides, the Boks found a way to reverse the momentum in at least two of those areas in the last 25 minutes. With the arrival of Ox Nche, they added the cherry on the top of the cake – scrum domination by the bomb squad, or at least the perception of it, as the game reached its apogée.

It sets up another classic confrontation between the two most ancient of rivals, and two opposed philosophies in the final against the All Blacks. In that climax, the creative friction, and the clash of styles will most definitely not be a problem. As the legendary boxing trainer Freddie Roach once said, “Styles make fights. That ‘Fighter A-Fighter B’ logic is way too simple. Styles make fights. Every fight is different.” Amen to that.


collin 242 days ago

Eish “ When we are talking about penalties deciding games, that is a really bad place to be…” How many tries did England score? Get real.

Wiseguy 244 days ago

The difference for me was SA being able to get a try while England, with their dominance early, could not. In saying that am I the only one who thought Fourie's knee was grounded in the tackle on his initial drive before he went again without releasing the ball?

Otagoman II 244 days ago

Thanks NB for the article. Every now and then the fear of the arbitrary scrum penalty comes up. Really this is not easy stuff for the average punter to figure out. I’ve said this before but on domestic tv NZ rugby we had Kees Meews explaining and giving his views on scrums. It was a welcome addition but they took that away.

Donald 244 days ago

If, as seemingly indicated in this piece, that the Saffa ‘Bomb squad’ prop was boring in when introduced, why weren’t their starting props doing likewise from the get go then? Is Rassie a bit ‘slow’?

And doesn’t pulling out ‘friendly’ commentators like Williams, Madigan to back this ‘boring’ view smack somewhat of the old cherry picking trick? Surely not.

There didn’t seem to be quite so much complaining when Barnes pinged Porter for similar treatment in the semi. And hardly a murmur at his issuing of the now familiar yellow confetti, BTW.

What NZ may ‘learn’ from the scrummaging business is to be seen.

Maybe they’ll feel, with all on board, that they may have some tricks of their own up their front row sleeves.. or maybe they won’t.

However, knowing that they did ok v the vaunted Irish front 3, also v the Saffas during the RC’s, will NZ be feeling patricianly inferior?

Listening to a few Fozzie respectful, but quietly determined interviews, might hint at a slightly differently informed view on all this scrum malarky.. & subsequent game outcome?

We’ll see.

Neil 244 days ago

I have enjoyed reading the positive reaction from the English press after this game - they played very well with their limited style and capabilities, but their flaws are what lost them the game! An inability to exert sustained offensive pressure and to score tries against top defenses. If England could have pulled off a try at any point but especially in the first 50 mins, the game would have looked very different and SA wouldn’t have been able to turn the screws even while they were behind. But England never looked threatening on attack or able to turn their high balls into penalties or corner lineouts. Just my thoughts

Donald 244 days ago

Don’t get this? Did Genge’s knee hit the deck or not? As BO’K indicated that G’s knee did, was the ref imagining it then?

Also pilloried in certain French quarters for not pinging Etzebeth’s backwards (as also indicated) slap.

Does this & ‘cakewalk’ commentary smack of some sour Grapes of Wrath?

I’m being tongue in cheek.

Well, a little bit.

Derek Murray 244 days ago

I feel like England made a couple of errors in selection. Everybody knew that Genge/George (presumably fatigued)/Sinckler was going to struggle late against Ox/Bongi/Koch. Given the weather, the likely strategy, and late match fatigue, would it not have been reasonable to assume more, and more important scrums, would happen late? I said as much before the game.

If that is true, might they not have been better starting with Genge and Sinckler and hoping for less errors early when players were not tired and made less mistakes?

Also, given the type of game they hoped/intended to play, wouldn’t Youngs have been a better bench option than Care? I know Care had been very good but his kicking game isn’t as good as Youngs and it was noticeable that things got worse when he came on. None of his box kicks were great and a few were either much too long (allowing a scrum) or too short, not allowing the advantage of his players moving forward to them at pace.

I can’t help but think that Ford would have kicked better out of hand than Farrell (one beautiful grubber notwithstanding, his line-kicking and in general play were poor) and not lost his rag when it mattered but the England rugby press all gave him MoM so I know that won’t be a popular opinion.

It was a massive effort and extremely good execution over most of the game in trying circumstances but it was a few small errors that cost.

Keilidh 244 days ago

In your second scrum video, shouldn’t SA be penalised for intentionally forcing an opponent upwards out of the scrum?

FrancoisM 245 days ago

I would say the last penalty was correct. A prop with his knee on the ground, not supporting his bodyweight on the engagement is always a penalty right? What happens after does not really matter does it?

Its like penalizing a player that’s clearly offside for a debatable high tackle and then indicating that the penalty is for a high tackle in an offside position?

I think the fact that O’Keefe did not immediately penalize the prop for knee on the ground and allowed the scrum to continue and and then blew his whistle for the first offence caused so much confusion.

O’Keefe literally went down on his own knee to indicate what the penalty was for.

“First on the knee and then across” was his call.

So technically the penalty was blew according to the law, but he should have penalized on knee on the ground only. This is where I think the pressure on the ref was. He did not want to penalize, but on the flip side, that England scrum was under pressure from 3 or 4 scrums prior to that one, so he had to stick with his decisions.

I’m obviously a South African, and it’s easier to argue this way after the result.

But I do believe they should change the law. No penalties from scrums, only free-kicks. I remember in Super Rugby around the beginning of the 2010’s, the trialed the free-kick law at scrums and I thought it was quite a success.

I think the rugby law on scrums if flawed, not the refs interpretation.

And for England, on the last play of the game, the player lost the ball forward on the ground, and then the same player (on the ground) slapped it back. So that’s playing the ball on the ground.

The English should have closed this game out, but they tried to protect a 9-point lead against the World Champs.

I guess lesson learned?

Francois 245 days ago

All Worldcup Finals: Penalties does not win you World Cup's, they loose you World Cup's
Tries 19
Con 12
Pen 57
Drop 6

Stop complaining in play to the rules as they are written.

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