“Every side has an Achilles heel and for this team it is in its wide defence. All teams get a little bit narrow sometimes when they are stressed, but they can’t afford to keep conceding three or four tries a game.”
This will be a familiar quote to Springbok fans after a up and down 2018 season. Many times the Boks was exposed out wide and it often cost us at crucial times. But the surprise is that this is not a quote about the Springboks, it is a quote about Andy Farrell and the Ireland defence.
You see the Irish walked the same path the Boks is walking now. Under Farrell, Ireland became much more aggressive on defence, and like the Boks it took a while for the players to adapt. I think we can agree that it is paying off for them?
So today I want to explain some of the things that the Boks is trying to do, and why we must be patient. We do not stand behind someone while they baking a cake and tell them every 5 minutes it don’t taste nice.
Above we almost see the whole Bok defence system in one picture. Firstly we see a “triangle rush” in the inside channel. Pieter-Steph is at the tip of a spear of three players who come up fast to kill the Welsh attempt at a gainline carry.
Like many teams, the Welsh will rumble here in a three-man pod, so the Boks must be compact to counter it and aggressive to try stop the carry early. Marx and the third man must make a read to either assist in the tackle, cover for a tip pass, or go for a poach if contact is dominant.
The second thing we notice is that the openside wing Aphiwe is up in the line and relatively narrow. To be fair the Boks is close to their own tryline and most teams will have men up in this kind of situation. But regardless, this is a good picture to show what I want to describe.
In the “wings up” defence that the Boks uses, the wing is almost like the new outside centre. He is joining the line earlier than he used to (wings used to sit back for longer) and he is joining narrower. So he is often making many of the decisions that the outside centre use to make. Depending on how play develops he must decide if he is going to come up, or be more passive and push out.
The third thing to notice is that the Boks only has two men in the backfield – Le Roux the fullback and Kolbe the blindside wing. Again the Boks is close to their own tryline so this is normal, but the difference is that they do this everywhere else on the field as well. The old way was to have a “back three” but today we only have a back two. We want our openside wing up in defence, so we pay the price by having one less guy at the back. Some people call this a “13-2” defence split.
Above we see the system working as it should. The Welsh is going wide down the left but Kolbe, who was up in the line, saw the opportunity to shoot aggressively and hit North deep, catching him ball and all. It is for pictures like the above that the Boks is using the system in the first place. The presence of a wing in the line give you a extra man, and with the extra man you can be more aggressive.
What is also important to see is the role of the cover defence. They the insurance policy if the tackle is missed. This is also a important note for people who complain that the Boks concede too much width on defence, because often it is fool’s width. After the cover defence make the tackle, the gain by the opposition is usually nominal. And it is a small price to pay for the chance to be aggressive.
So why is defences starting to play with wings up? Simply, modern attack caused it. Screen plays and extra numbers being thrown into attack mean you must have more personnel in defence to deal with all the possibilities. Teams was starting to “fix” the inside defence with screens and decoys and then making easy meters around the edge. So now our wing is up earlier and plays tighter to the outside centre to form part of the line.
A interesting thing is that the presence of the wing in the line has actually given our outside senter new options in defence. In the old days (two years ago) the 13 was the last man, and if he make a mistake then his team is in trouble. But as we see above there is opportunities for the 13 to be very aggressive now because of the safety of the wing next to him.
Above we see Wales is playing down the right. Jesse is able to slip past the decoy to hit Davies deep. He have Dyantyi on his shoulder so he don’t have to worry about the outside option. The tackle is good and Marx get a turnover because the Welsh support can not get back in time.
We saw Lukhanyo Am also blossoming with this freedom and make some excellent spot tackles this year, as in the picture below against the All Blacks.
Everything we have said so far sound easy, but it is not. The modern wing have a hell of a lot on his plate in terms of positioning and decisions and we can argue that it is now the most difficult place to defend in rugby. While Sbu Nkosi and Cheslin Kolbe has adapted quicker to the new system, Aphiwe Dyantyi is still finding his feet. It is on his wing that many teams has found space this year.
Above we see his mistake that led to a try. He make the call to commit and shoot up, but he do it too early and Anscombe is able to float a pass wide for the try.
Aphiwe should have “peddled” a bit first to buy time. Then he can try to hit man and ball if the pass go to North, or then he is still in a position to cover Williams who is out of frame. This timing and decision-making have troubled Aphiwe time and again this year, but he have shown improvement and the only way to learn this system is to play it.
As we see above, another interesting feature of the Bok defence is the use of the 9 in the front line, or in a roaming role. In the old days (two years ago) our scrummie use to run a sweep line behind the backs as cover and to guard against chips and grubbers. But now we see him up in the line and in the case of Faf, having a free role to shoot and disrupt the opposition wherever he can. In the Bok system a wise 9 can be a real weapon in defence.
It is interesting because that old sweeping role behind the backs have now fallen in the lap of our poor 15! Not only have we taken away one of his wings, but now he must also cover for those offensive kicks. So the modern fullback must have excellent positional knowledge.
A final piece of the defensive puzzle for the Boks is that they will sometimes send out very aggressive single shooters. When they have the numbers, we see guys like Pieter-Steph and Faf (above) often going up like missiles to try and do some damage. Even if a tackle is not made, the opposition is rushed and disrupted. This is a very valuable option in the Bok toolbag because we can rattle the attack in a mental way. We can get in their heads and cause uncertainty and hesitation.
So guys that is just a tip of the iceberg of the Bok defence. We have not even touched on the Bok breakdown philosophy and how that tie into the defence system too, but maybe that is a conversation for another day!
All I want to leave you with is that the Boks is building something valuable, and like anything valuable it will take time to perfect. There is easier defensive systems sure, but the long-term gain of having a feared and unpenetrable defence can not be measured.
Be patient, let the boys make mistakes and, like Ireland, one day we will reap the fruits!
DISCLAIMER: English is Oom’s third language, after Rugby and Afrikaans