Defence bedrock of future success

RYAN VREDE writes the Springboks’ defensive excellence against Argentina is a greater cause for optimism than their failure to score a bonus point is cause for concern.

Personally I don’t understand the near-hysteria around the Springboks’ inability to secure five points at Newlands on Saturday. I would have deeper concerns if the Springboks had looked completely impotent and not got themselves in scoring positions.

But they did, and how they got themselves there – largely through a kick-chase method – doesn’t vex me either. It is a method that has worked for South Africa’s most successful Super Rugby franchises of recent years, the Bulls and (more recently) the Stormers. My position has always been that when in those positions there needs to be composure, invention and precision about the attacking play.

Just because the Springboks’ attacking play lacked those qualities in the final quarter shouldn’t be seen as a precursor to chronic attacking struggles, which was terminal to the Stormers’ semi-final effort against the Sharks. Meyer’s limited time with his squad was reflected in their lack of attacking synergy. This will improve with time and the addition of personnel who have been injured. Indeed a defining characteristic of Meyer’s championship-winning Bulls sides was their try-scoring ability. This should stir confidence.

I was always more keen to see how they defended, especially against an Argentinean pack that was renowned for their ability to set a good attacking platform for their backs. To blunt them in the manner they did was inspiring. Attitude, power, work rate and accuracy are the cornerstones of defensive success and the Springboks ticked all those boxes, repelling the Pumas with an immense effort from the collective. Flyhalf Juan Martin Hernandez commanded much attention from the media prior to the Test, but he was largely rendered a non-factor.

Springbok defence coach John McFarland lauded that defensive effort, attributing the impotency of Hernandez and co to their work in this facet of play. ‘I think their backs were dangerous. They moved the ball well and got the odd bit of momentum. But we scrambled well, got into position and got our line set and moving forward at them again,’ he said.

‘I think they put us under pressure but we were well prepared for them and managed to dominate them in the collisions. Certainly they did cause us a few problems with their high ball game but I thought our back three dealt exceptionally well with that.’

Their ability to stifle the Pumas’ challenge extended to their defence of the rolling maul, their success here built on excellent competing from Andries Bekker. ‘It is a strength in their game. We don’t want to give them opportunities to build momentum. If your lineout competing is functioning well they shouldn’t be able to get that go-forward,’ McFarland said when asked about this in Mendoza on Wednesday.

McFarland said the Pumas would pose a greater attacking threat on Saturday and also praised advances they have made in other areas of their attacking play. ‘Every game is a different challenge. Here they will be passionate and try and execute what they’ve been doing over the past two or three weeks. I think Argentina are playing very different rugby to what they have in the past. Certainly they are prepared to use their backs more, attack a little wider and get to the edge of the field. But to me their biggest improvement has been in their counter-attack. In the past they would just launch high balls in return, now they’re prepared to give the ball a bit of air. It’s up to us to nullify their strengths and impose ours on them.’

The best sides in the game have achieved a balance between punishing defence and dynamic attack (the former often facilitating the latter). The Springboks don’t have that balance yet and they cannot cling to mitigating factors for this for too long. But the attacking problems they have are relatively easily addressed. We should be hoping they build on their defensive solidarity and the discipline that accompanied that. It will be the foundation for any future success.


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