Closer than we think

RICHARD FERGUSON writes that South African defence has been as impressive as New Zealand’s attack in the early stages of this season’s Super Rugby.

The matches I most looked forward to were the Blues and the Crusaders and my Sharks hosting the Stormers.

I was disappointed watching our teams deliver dour rugby while the New Zealand teams looked light years ahead in terms of skill and mindset.

I must be honest, I didn’t expect fireworks in the game at Kings Park, but I was expecting the teams to loosen up at some point in the match. Both teams have attacking players and there would have been nothing better than seeing attack favour defence.

My analytical mind went looking for answers, and the stats I managed to dig up made me realise the two South African teams were a lot more clinical in their basics, compared to the Blues and Crusaders.

In terms of tackling stats, the Sharks missed 5 from 120 attempts and the Stormers 12 from 84, while the Blues and Saders were both well down on tackle effectiveness, Blues missing 14 from 112 and Saders 29 from 145. Considering that all four these teams are likely to take part in the playoffs later this year, the South African teams can hold their head high knowing that they are defensively ready.

The counter argument to that is two South African sides were playing each other and two New Zealand sides were on the field at the same time. They had different mindsets and different strengths. This weekend will provide more insight on my view that different styles don’t necessary mean weaker teams.

The Blues have a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of set pieces. In the lineouts they lost 5 of their 12 throws, while the Saders got 10 from 10 and the Sharks and Stormers each losing two on their own throw. They also got penalised twice at scrum time, but so did the Sharks (4 penalties) and the Stormers (3 penalties). The Saders have a clean record when it comes to scrum time, something they will take as a positive going into this week’s clash against the Hurricanes.

Another positive for the Saders was the fact that they ran 90% of the ball that got to flyhalf Dan Carter. Carter received the ball 41 times, kicking only 10 times and passing a mammoth 36 balls. Their attack was very lateral and easy to defend and the midfield offered nothing and Tom Taylor was pedestrian at fullback. Israel Dagg was wasted on the wing.

In comparison, the South African flyhalves kicked most of their possession, but conditions and the arm struggle up front influenced this approach.

The only team of the four to get a linebreak was the Blues, who managed three, while offloads in attacking play were double what the Crusaders managed (10 for the Blues against 5 of the Saders). Offloads in the South African derby were low with the Sharks managing 4 to the 2 of the Stormers.

All four these teams should be in contention when the competition reaches the business end, and I am certain that matches between say the Blues and Sharks or Crusaders and Stormers will be closer than most expect. Not because they will change the way in which they approach the game, but because the defensive strengths of the South African is a counter to the attacking skills of the Kiwis.