The celebrations across the globe at the demise of the All Blacks should be short-lived.
Anyone who knows anything about rugby knows that a one-off defeat, no matter how epic, is only one-off event. And while the All Blacks may have given everyone hope ahead of next year’s Rugby World Cup, they will still be overwhelming favourites because their system is strong, and that’s what determines World Cup winners.
It is the same with the modern game. We’re all for preaching attack and every single pundit worth their salt wants to proclaim the gospel of running rugby.
And while that is good for the spectacle of the game, and tries are always beautiful to watch when they are well-executed, the solemn truth that few want to hear is that defence will win the next World Cup.
What the November window has shown us is that teams that execute their defence well, that are willing to put their bodies on the line and make more tackles when necessary, will win.
Test rugby is an absolute. It is about pressure. It is about soaking it up and counter-punching when you can. It is about playing smartly and for territory, and yes, when the moment presents, it is about unleashing your attack to punish mistakes.
It is no coincidence that many tries in modern Test rugby come from the counter-attack, from broken play where a smart player spots a mismatch in the defensive line. But between those moments – the moments when your defensive pressure puts the opposition into a phase where they make a mistake – the lines hold firm.
We watched in wonder as the Springboks punched and defended, and then counter-punched when they could to beat the All Blacks in Wellington. We watched as the Springbok defence and the bench couldn’t hold out at Loftus under the pressure. In Wellington, the Boks made 235 tackles to the 61 of the All Blacks. At Loftus the All Blacks made 147 to the 93 of the Springboks.
We watched the Boks not take their chances against England at Twickenham, then bounce back with the door left open by France to steal that game. And we watched on Saturday when the Scots counter-punched well but the Bok defence was resolute, physical and ensured a workmanlike victory at Murrayfield.
Twickenham saw England make 52 more tackles as they outlasted the Boks, Paris saw the Boks have to make 47 more tackles than the French. Murrayfield was the anomaly where the Boks made 26 less tackles, but through dominant defence won the game.
In Dublin the Irish did make 10 more tackles than the All Blacks – 198 to 188 – but were smarter, more dominant in the tackle and were able to disrupt the All Blacks attack.
And that is the key – a smart defence, one that amplifies the pressure on the opposition. One that forces the opposition into mistakes is the counter to the modern attacking game. Defences are well-organised worldwide now and broken play is the key to countering this.
While we continue to preach a modern, attacking game where individuals can unlock defences, the truth is a good system of defence will hold strong and place even the best attacking side under pressure.
And with the 2019 Rugby World Cup round the corner, the Home Unions have invested heavily in defensive structures, and the hot-and-humid conditions in Japan will underline this importance.
The Boks will have possibly their toughest Test against Warren Gatland’s side in Cardiff on Saturday, but not because the Welsh are an overly impressive side. They’ve built their success around a defensive system that is stingy and effective, one that is hardly exciting to watch but gets the results.
And the key for the Boks is to unlock this, meet them head on with defensive pressure and force the mistakes. And then take advantage on the counter.
Wales will be a litmus test for the Springboks ahead of Japan 2019. It will provide them with a blueprint of what to expect at the Rugby World Cup. But every November international has only served to remind us: World Rugby may preach the gospel of attacking play, but come the World Cup final, we will all be talking again how defence wins tournaments.