SA’s elite need tactical rethink

RYAN VREDE writes that the impotency of South African back threes is a cause for concern.

Statistics suggest that tactical conservatism by South Africa’s elite franchises – the Stormers, Bulls and Sharks – is seriously undermining their back three’s threat.

In the top 20 leading try-scorers (in the back three) in the tournament, only Bulls wing Bjorn Basson features, with six to his name. However, the majority of those have been opportunistic or individual efforts. Few have come from purposeful, structured play.

The Australasian teams in the play-off positions at present have at least one back three player in the top 20 – the Crusaders lead the way with all three of their unit prolific represented, while the and Reds and Blues have two each (note: the Blues have lost fullback Isaia Toeava who was a force prior to injury).

Waratahs fullback Kurtley Beale is in there and so is wing Drew Mitchell, although his absence through injury is sure to be telling as the tournament advances to its crucial point.

There is other statistical evidence to suggest that South African back threes are struggling, or, more likely, being strangled by conservative tactics. Lions fullback Jaco Taute is the only South African to feature in the run metres, and only Taute is among the leading players in the back three for linebreaks. Even Lachlan Mitchell of the Rebels, who get pounded most weeks, is prominent in the latter category.

Either our back three players are highly ineffective with the opportunities that are created for them, or too few opportunities are being created. My observations have me inclined to the latter.

Notably, and herein lies a strong hint at the problem, there are eight South Africa flyhalves and scrumhalves among the 20 players who have kicked the most. Certainly for the Bulls, the accuracy of those kicks has generally been poor, which has compromised their effectiveness. The Sharks and Stormers haven’t fared much better.

It would be amiss not to note that the Blues, Reds and Waratahs are among those with players in this category. However, they have all exhibited the ability to vary their play, and none have used kicks as a primary avenue of attack.

What does this say about our thinking on the game? Prior to the introduction of the breakdown law interpretations, South African teams could justify their pragmatism statistically. Teams were getting penalised consistently at attacking rucks, making it risky to try and play through phases. But that has changed, with ball-in-hand play promoted through law interpretations that make it more difficult for defending teams to stifle the attacking flow.

This is not a call for cavalier play, merely an observation that teams have generally been rewarded for skilfully retaining possession, and the ones that play through enough phases are able to create scoring opportunities in the wide channels for their outside backs. In addition, those with a back three adept at countering from broken field or turnover ball have profited as well.

South Africa’s elite sides are equipped to do both, but there sadly has been little evidence of their ability to do so. The style of play on show from the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks has a place, and that’s in a play-off environment. To get there they’ll have to adapt their tactics, especially since four-try bonus points looks likely to be decisive in the final analysis.