Gold denies defensive frailities

Gary Gold says that he’s not particularly concerned about the fact that the Springboks have missed as many as 43 tackles in two World Cup matches.

On Wednesday, Gold picked up where the head coach and skipper left off, stating that the team wasn’t as concerned about the quality of opposition during these pool games as they were about the quality of their own performance.

Like Peter de Villiers and John Smit, he also believes the Boks are on the right track, and that by the quarter-finals they will have sharpened their game to the point where they can mount a serious challenge on Australia.

Gold said that he was particularly pleased with the defence. The Boks conceded one try against Wales in the Pool D opener, and then kept the Fijians tryless last Saturday.

Many of the Boks had suggested beforehand that Fiji would present more of an attacking threat than Wales, and so to keep the islanders to three points is something the team regards as a pretty special defensive effort. Great scrambling defence saved them on more than one occasion in that clash with Wales, and the cover defence was called on time and again to smother a Fijian attack.

But while the Bok coaches and players are quick to commend the defence, the defensive statistics confirm that it’s an area that requires further polishing. Against Wales, the Boks slipped 17 tackles. Against Fiji, they were even worse, missing 26 tackles in all.

The official rugby World Cup statistics also confirm that the Boks’ first-time tackling was less efficient against Fiji than it was against Wales. While they only had 40% of the ball against Wales and had to spend large periods of the game on defence, they enjoyed 53% possession in the next game but still allowed the Fijians through the line.

Gold admitted there was room for improvement, but is otherwise largely satisfied with the Boks’ progress in this area.

‘The obvious improvement in our game is that we didn’t concede a try. We conceded a try against Wales, but didn’t concede a try against Fiji. I think our defence was tighter against a team that can be a threat with ball in hand,’ the Bok assistant coach said.

‘Against a team like Fiji, you are always going to miss a handful of first-time tackles. They’re phenomenal steppers and that’s their game. Sometimes people talk about scramble defence as if the team has failed, but that is still an aspect of defence. A fantastic Fijian may step the first defender but then it’s up to the players on either side of the beaten defender to react accordingly.

‘We’re not overly concerned about it, but obviously there is always room for improvement.’

Gold said that he would like to see the Boks improving their ball retention in the next two matches. While Namibia is the weakest team in Pool D, the Boks will employ a direct approach and use the game as an opportunity to improve in the areas identified by the coaches as below par.

An improved showing in terms of ball retention will also have a positive impact on the Bok defence. They’ve conceded far too much possession in the last two matches either through handling errors or breakdown turnovers.

Namibia won’t ask many questions of the Bok defence, but this will present the South Africans with a chance to build some momentum and confidence before facing the confrontational Samoans and then the Aussies in the play-offs.

Morne Steyn has plenty to prove in the flyhalf channel after a swing-door effort against Wales and another shaky showing against Fiji. But even if he delivers a solid performance against Namibia, it won’t be enough to convince anybody that he has improved sufficiently to stand up to a world-class attack.

A start for Steyn against Samoa would serve as some preparation and act as an indicator of his defensive progress, but that would rob the Boks’ best defensive flyhalf option, Butch James, of a promised start at this World Cup.

Gold revealed that James, who is not available for Thursday’s game against Namibia because of a hip injury, will come into contention for the next game against Samoa. It will present something of a conundrum for De Villiers as he’s sworn to build momentum with his first-choice team, but has also promised to have a look at James before the play-offs.

If defence is truly prized, then it shouldn’t even be a debate. Steyn will stand up to the Namibian challenge, but it is James that will best serve the Boks in the games where top opposition target the No 10 channel.

By Jon Cardinelli, in Auckland