JP to reinforce Bok backline?

Stephen Nell

Given the success that Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus achieved with an emphasis on watertight defence earlier in his career, it feels rather strange questioning that aspect of the Springboks’ performances against England.

The Boks have conceded seven tries in the first two tests against England. Compare this to 2012 when the Stormers, with Rassie’s blueprint under coach Allister Coetzee, topped the Super Rugby log through conceding a mere 21 tries in 16 league matches.

Whether it’s a matter of the system not working, players executing it badly or individual errors, poor defence – and nothing else – has been the reason that the Boks have had to come from behind to win the first two Tests in this series.

Of course, the Boks’ ability to shut out the English for lengthy periods after the bad starts is deserving of rich praise. Rassie’s boldness in every area, including selection, is laudable.

However, that doesn’t mean one should shower the Boks with purple prose when there is a fundamental weakness to their game.

Having reviewed the poor starts to both the first and second Tests, it confirmed my suspicion that the Bok wings – Aphiwe Dyantyi and S’bu Nkosi – are way out of position. Acres of space were left out wide for the English to exploit and they did that with some slick backline play from George Ford, Owen Farrell, Henry Slade, Jonny May, Mike Brown and Elliot Daly.

Whether this weakness in South Africa’s defence is the outcome of a clumsy rush, for which we should blame the defensive system, or poor decision-making and/or communication by players, is an open question.

There are also some open and shut cases of missed tackles allowing England to score – for example, Brown wouldn’t have touched down in the first Test had Handré Pollard and Damian de Allende done a better job of defending the line.

The wings are the main concern and, with that in mind, perhaps Rassie should have a close look at what Bok veteran JP Pietersen can still bring to the party.

Pietersen turns 32 next month and plays for Toulon in France. Players cruise through many of the league games in France and the question of their continued involvement with the Boks may be one of what mental space they’re in. The good life in the south of France with family and supportive fans at hand is, for some, a more appealing prospect than the relentless pressure of reviving their Bok careers.

A wing in his early thirties may of course have slowed down, which also has the potential to be a problem. But there is a part of me that wonders whether Rassie may ultimately have to add some experience to his backline in order to aid the decision-making out wide, especially when the team on the other side of the field is the All Blacks. At the very least, he should add JP to the squad for the Rugby Championship so that he has that option.

While JP scored many tries for the Boks, he was responsible for one of my enduring “defensive”memories with a cover tackle in the Boks’ quarter-final against Fiji at the 2007 Rugby World Cup. The Boks were holding a slender 23-20 lead and it appeared a sure thing that Ifereimi Rawaqa would score in the corner to give Fiji the lead as late in the game as the 67th minute. Pietersen, however, pulled off a splendid tackle to deny Fiji and the Boks held on to win 37-20.

It was a scramble rather than awareness inside a system, but it also serves as a reminder of how important defence is in play-off situations. With 70 Tests behind his name, JP may just have a positional sense and decision-making ability that the Boks need with next year’s World Cup on the horizon.

What I also like about JP is his size. There are small backline players that have lit up the pitch and held their own on defence – the likes of Breyton Paulse and Gio Aplon come to mind – but by and large you need big men in the backline. Not just to be able to contest the advantage line, but also to physically stand their ground when the Naholo’s of the world are on the opposite side.

Bear in mind too that Willie le Roux isn’t the biggest fullback in the world, so a physical specimen such as Pietersen may well have a lot to offer the Boks.

In choosing his squad, Rassie opted for four uncapped wings in Dyantyi, Nkosi, Makazole Mapimpi and Travis Ismaiel. I would have liked to see Mapimpi get an opportunity in the third Test against England, but of course Rassie is a coach in the true sense of the word – he has the ability to coach players to become better and establish a disciplined structure in which they operate. Thus he has kept faith with the flyers from the first two Tests.

And fair play to Rassie: He has been bold, not dismissed players based on their mistakes and given opportunities to players where caution would have got the better of other coaches.

It’s going to be very interesting to see how the Boks’ defence shapes up in the third Test. Rassie has added a new centre pairing in André Esterhuizen and Jesse Kriel, while also dropping an experienced fullback in Le Roux to accommodate Warrick Gelant.

A brave man, this Erasmus fellow!

- Stephen Nell

Let's chat

  • Sakkie

    JP Pietersen to make a comeback. Fortunately Rassie is not out of his mind. I watch JP play for Toulon, he looks slow and without direction in some games. The only thing going for him is his size.

  • Jay

    Honestly the defensive frailties really lies down to the structures that were put in place. They were expecting the English to employ many “gary owens” in the first test which kept the wings back a bit and allowed the space. Once they realized this was not the gameplan of the day they adapted and not many were leaked through again. The only thing that is going to rectify it in my opinon is keeping these wings on in the pressure of a game to get used to and master Nienaber’s plan. Once that clicks, I am confident we will be speaking about the great Springbok defence.

    With regards to size, I am assuming you are referring to Dyanti as Nkosi is almost 100kg himself and has immense strength. Bringing JP back now I feel would be a step backwards. We already have Willie there for guidance and now just need to trust in the system and I am sure these guys will deliver.

    • Mikey

      “In the first two tests the whole backline really has looked at 6s and 7s, and technical aspects of timing as well as the decision making has been poor.” Sorry I mean this from a defensive point of view, The attack has been good.

    • Mikey

      It is really not a very good excuse, even if Rassie made it, that they did not expect something in a rugby match. Surely a coach prepares for everything that he possibly can. But was the defence really sorted out after the first 17 mins of the first test? Or were England simply starved of possession?

      In the 1st test England had a lot of the ball in the first 17 Mins and scored 3 tries. Then they had a lot of the ball in the last 13 mins and scored 2 tries. Other than that SA overwhelmingly dominated possession. There were 2 occasions when England tried to run the ball with their backs in the beginning of the 2nd half in their own half of the field, and both times Nkosi made the tackle, so kudos to him for that, but both times he was stretched in making the tackle, which suggests a problem with defensive alignment and timing. Other than that England had very little ball at the time. Later in the game when they had more ball even their tight multiple phase possession seemed to cause us problems, a try looked inevitable, and concluded in Itoje stretching to score. Did the defence look sorted, even when SA knew how England were intending to play, after having made their apparent adjustment in defence, when Johnny May scored with the greatest of ease?

      What about the 2nd test when they conceded easy tries up front, now fully expecting that from England with the luxury of a week to prepare for it as well? In the 2nd half was the defence really so good that it stopped England from scoring any points or was a significant reason also that England knocked on the ball an extraordinary amount of times in that 2nd half, especially in the red zone?

      In the first two tests the whole backline really has looked at 6s and 7s, and technical aspects of timing as well as the decision making has been poor.

      Both de Allende and Am seemed to be defending in the 12 channel, with 12, I assume, given the brief of floating and 13 given the brief of rushing. 11 and 14 were defending the 13 channel (also rushing) instead of their respective wing channel, resulting in a very narrow defensive line up, giving England a virtual overlap on a silver platter, which they took full advantage of. I assume the idea was for Am and wings to rush up to stop the ball getting to the England wings. But their decision making was very poor, not understanding that if England played the ball deep (or SA had a deeper defensive line up due the excuse that was given of expecting kicks), that they had no chance of doing so, and at that point they should have floated across to easily snuff out the threat, but instead straightened, and found themselves in no mans land, hardly even laying a finger on the opposition on at least 3 occasions (that I can remember), over both tests…that lead directly to tries.

      Of course the timing of a Pollard tackle and an Nkosi tackle, over both tests, which could have made up for the earlier defensive mistakes that lead to tries, also brings into the question their tackling technique.

      Then the de Allende kick and Nkosi defensive alignment that lead directly to the Johnny May try in the first test, after an apparent adjustment had already been made, showed a lack of awareness on the rugby field. 6 of England’s tries over both tests were due to SA backline defensive errors. That’s quite a lot over two tests. Nienaber has said it will take him 7 games to get the defence right. Well I hope so, but he certainly has his work cut out for himself.

      • Herman Schroder?

        Well done Mikey, at last someone who looks objectively at a problem and doesn’t fall for the hype surrounding Rassie’s two wins so far. As far as D’Allende s concerned imo he must be the only player in world rugby who strengthens a team when he is dropped. lol. Cheers.

    • Stephen

      Hi Jay, nice to hear your view. No I’m not referring to the size of the existing wings. I’m just saying one of the reasons JP appeals to me is that he’s a big physical specimen. Regards, Stephen

      • Herman Schroder?

        Stephen I’m glad you are reasonably objective of where the Boks are at at the moment but really if you are serious about calling JP back into the mix you could not have been watching much Bok rugby since 2014. One cross field tackle does not a superstar make. Rather you should look at his ‘waltzing matilda’ style tackling in recent years and his poor form overseas and the many games where he was average to poor when Heyneke Meyer had his meltdown. And you seriously want to resurrect him in 2018 ? By the way watch Curwin Bosch and Damien D’Allende who also ’embrace’ the ‘waltzing matilda’ tackle style.

        At this rate if Rassie calls up Matfield to join all the ‘imports’ from the North we will have practically the same team that lost to Japan in that infamous WC pool game, lol. Yes even Pollard and Lambie were there. No sir, put all these failed golden oldies out to pasture asap the modern game has passed them by. Cheers.

  • Naas.

    Stephen, I agree with your opinion on defense in the Bok backline. The two wings are out of their depth and we know why they are there. In fairness, the whole backline need to up their defense.
    However, to bring back JP Pietersen would be like going back to the dark ages. He is without doubt the laziest rugby player there ever was. His defense is also very suspect.
    No, we have quite enough wings of international standard here in SA to fill the squad. They just have to be selected.

  • Leon

    If you have to go look for an older Springbok (rather than other players whom can do a better job on defense such as Combrinck, Leyds etc.) then rather go fetch Habana…

  • John Williams

    Still blame JP for not stopping the off-the-bench wing who scored the winning try for Japan against us at the last World Cup He’s had his day. Let’s stick with our present exciting wings!

    • Stephen

      Look at the move for that try and you’ll see the problem started with Jesse Kriel’s miss.

  • Liam

    The 2 encumbent wings are doing a great job, with experience the defense can be improved and needs to be for sure. Their outright pace is a breath of fresh air in the back line. I think that they improved from game1 to game2 and as they settle I am confident that the defensive structures will improve as well – with so few tests between them it should be up to the more experienced players to step up and rally the backline

  • Jay Black

    Naas, please tell me why do you think are Dyantyi and Nkosi in the team. Are you suggesting they are in the team because of the colour of their skin?

  • Dean

    There’s no way JP should leapfrog any of the wings we have available. Toulon have preferred Chris Ashton and Tuisova over him for the big games this season. Now they have signed Savea, so it will be even less game time for JP. You need wings with pace and physicality to play the modern game. JP doesn’t have the pace anymore. Rassie should keep developing Nkosi, Mapimpi and Dyantyi. Let’s not forget that Combrinck was one of our best players in 2016. When he is fit and on form, he is brilliant.

    • Herman Schroder?

      Well said. Cheers old chap.

  • Brom Ponie

    No. Just no…
    Rather consider Mapimpi or Combrinck instead, but Nkosi and Dyantji are to stay for now.

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