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!