The opening round of the 2019 Six Nations championship produced a result that should be of particular interest to the rest of the rugby world. Particularly if you, like most of us, had been caught up in the hype created around Ireland over the past year or so.
And who wouldn’t be?
Ireland were magnificent in 2018. They won the Six Nations title, beat the Aussies in a three-match Test series Down Under, and finally stopped the All Blacks in Ireland.
Joe Schmidt has built a team capable of challenging the best. Dominant forwards, a tactically-astute halfback pairing and finishers with killer instinct.
But what Eddie Jones’ England showed with a 32-20 victory in Dublin last week is that if you’re capable of smashing the living daylights out of a team, the form book means nothing.
Irish fans complained afterwards how they couldn’t understand the consensus that their forwards got smashed, seeing as they won all their scrums and more lineouts than their English counterparts. Even their tackle success rate (90%) was better than England’s (87%).
The telling stat? Dominant tackles.
England made 48 dominant tackles compared to only eight dominant hits by Ireland. That means that 27% of their tackles were dominant compared to Ireland (6%).
Why is this stat important? The other big upset in recent memory, where the underdogs upset the apple cart by humbling a so-called “unbeatable” team at home, was the Springboks’ defensive heroics last year against the All Blacks in Wellington.
On that day Rassie Erasmus’ Boks made 39 dominant hits compared to the All Blacks’ four. It was a performance that saw the Boks absolutely smash anything that came in their way, with three Boks making more than 20 tackles.
One of those Boks was Pieter-Steph du Toit, named the 2018 SA Rugby Player of the Year this week.
Guess how many Englishmen had to make more than 20 tackles this past weekend? Yep, three of them. Even more encouraging is that England, with a new defence coach in former Bulls’ man John Mitchell, employed a similar rush-defence pattern as used by the Boks last year.
One English rugby scribed even made the point on social media this week that Ben Youngs, England’s scrumhalf, had copied Faf de Klerk’s role on defence.
It takes at least three players willing to tackle their bodies (and those of opposing ball-carriers) into the ground to beat the big boys. In Du Toit, Franco Mostert and Steven Kitshoff, the Boks have three players whose work rate on defence is among the best in the world.
Add players like Malcolm Marx, Duane Vermeulen and Siya Kolisi who frequently topped the “Dominant Tackle” charts last year, and the Boks don’t give an inch in the contact area.
What South Africa lacks is a halfback pairing that is capable of tactically controlling the game. For all De Klerk and Handre Pollard’s game-breaking abilities, I still haven’t seen them manage a Test like Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, and Youngs and Owen Farrell did for Ireland and England this past weekend.
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