Big test for ‘soft’ Bok defence

JON CARDINELLI writes the biggest challenge for the Springboks’ defence this weekend will be one of mental as well as physical consistency.

The Boks’ inability to create sufficiently, or indeed finish when they do make the odd break or surge, has been rightly scrutinised. The South African game plan has lacked balance for some time, although you could hardly say that their defensive game is perfect.

The Wallabies scored two soft tries in the previous match-up in Perth, and in the aftermath Bok coach Heyneke Meyer lamented the ‘soft moments’. It’s a phrase Meyer has come to use more and more as the year has progressed, having first coined it during the June Tests where the Boks were guilty of far too many defensive lapses.

The Boks will return to Loftus Versfeld this Saturday, and while it is encouraging to know that the ground is a fortress in terms of the win/loss record against the Wallabies, it is also the ground where they produced one of their most inconsistent showings in recent times.

The 2010 Test at Loftus was the only Tri-Nations game they won that season, but the defensive display was nothing short of abysmal.

Meyer’s Boks have been similarly susceptible in that the defence has lapsed at key moments. They seemed on course for victory in Perth before folding in the second stanza, poor tackling and discipline at the root of their failure.

What made that result particularly difficult to stomach was that the Wallabies weren’t that impressive. Indeed, injuries and a change in mindset have blunted the once formidable and feared Wallabies attack. How then do they continue to breach and punish the Bok defence?

In a statistical analysis compiled by ruckingoodstats.com, there are some similarities between the Boks and Wallabies. These stats show that the Wallabies are kicking more this season, and up on the Highveld, it is likely that the Wallabies will favour a tactical-kicking flyhalf like Berrick Barnes.

The Boks won’t have to worry about the all-round brilliance of Will Genia and Quade Cooper, as both Wallabies halfbacks are out with injuries. But it is interesting to note that even when that potent pair have been available in the 2012 Test season, the Wallabies on average have kept less ball in play than the Boks.

They also averaged just 3.8 offloads per match while the Boks averaged 4.6 (the average for southern hemisphere teams this year has been 5.6). So while it’s clear that both teams are struggling to get their attacking game going, the Wallabies are slightly worse off than the Boks.

The Boks (19) are slightly above the average of 18.9 for tackles broken, while the Wallabies are below par at 17.1. South Africa also edge the Australians for clean linebreaks, with 1.9 per match playing 1.4. Both teams are below average (2 per game) in terms of tries scored, and again the Wallabies’ average is worse than that of the Boks.

And what of defence? The Wallabies have missed 17.3 tackles per Test in 2012, while South Africa have let 17.1 slip. Again, these are stats of struggling teams, as the southern hemisphere average is 16.2 per game.

The Boks have done well in terms of territory, averaging 57% per match. What’s been plain to see is that they struggle to pick up the points once in the opponents’ half, either through wayward goal-kicking or poor finishing.

The Wallabies have attempted to play a more tactical game in 2012 with very limited success. The quality of their line-kicking has come under scrutiny, and according to the stats, 9.7% of all kicks out of hand have ended in error.

This is something that the Boks must look to punish at Loftus, and perhaps this is where they can show more attacking intent through a counter-attack rather than a premeditated garryowen.

The Boks’ attacking stats at the tackle are hardly surprising. They are on the wrong side of the southern hemisphere average in terms of penalties conceded while in possession, and for penalties conceded at rucks and mauls. This is something they will need to sharpen if they hope to build any sort of attacking continuity.

Where they will look to attack the Wallabies, and again this should come as no surprise, is at the scrum. The Wallabies concede on average 2.3 penalties (the southern hemisphere average is 1.7) and 1 free kick (0.8) per game at this set piece. Almost a quarter of all scrums end in the Wallabies being punished.

The Boks led 13-3 at one stage in Perth, as they were able to capitalise, albeit to a limited to degree, on the Wallabies’ weaknesses and errors. However, the Boks’ own shortcomings, on attack and defence, were exposed in the second half.

They will need to be mindful of this at Loftus. It’s obvious that they need to start converting more of their goal-kicking opportunities, as well as rounding off their try-scoring chances. But above and beyond that, they need to show some defensive mettle in that decisive second stanza.

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