“Trevor Chappell” rugby was how England coach Eddie Jones famously branded Italy’s efforts during their Six Nations meeting earlier this year.
Italy frustrated England by standing off the ruck and defending in numbers, constantly veering “offside” to get in the way of scrumhalf Danny Care’s passes because no ruck had formed. Jones was seething, even though his team won 36-15 in an encounter which Italy led 10-5 at halftime.
The tactic was famously credited to Italy and Springbok consultant Brendan Venter.
Changing tactics have also been a feature of the Springboks this season. South Africa played two vastly different game plans against Australia in Bloemfontein and Perth, and then against New Zealand in Cape Town.
In Bloem, the Boks made 60 carries more than they had against the self-same opponents in Perth, mostly by playing the ball through the wider channels – including an extra 106 passes – with flankers Siya Kolisi and Francois Louw tasked with making metres out wide. Kolisi gained 76 metres on five carries while, in Perth, he made 34 metres from five runs.
The Boks also kicked exponentially less in Bloem, almost halving the number of kicks launched in Perth. Clearly instructions had been given that, to beat Australia, more of a ball-in-hand approach had to be followed.
Unfortunately, the result didn’t change and the Boks logged a second successive draw against Australia, but it was plain to see that the Boks were much more assertive in Bloem.
One week after the ball-in-hand approach against the Wallabies, Steven Hansen’s All Blacks were waiting in Cape Town and, as much as we want to be romantic about South Africa playing all the rugby, against the Kiwis you do that to your own detriment.
Luckily, the Boks completely abandoned their play-it-wide approach for a more pragmatic approach. Some would say a more traditional South African style.
In Cape Town, the Boks’ kicking game reverted to the volume of kicks launched in Perth. The Twitterati were quick to bash poor Ross Cronje for a volley of error-strewn box-kicks, but clearly that was the plan. No way were the Boks going to outrun these All Blacks – we had to bash them.
The Boks made 57 more tackles at Newlands than they had in Bloem, and carried the ball up on 39 more occasions for an average of 5.9 metres-per-carry. Against Australia, South Africa’s ball-carriers averaged 6.8 metres.
A more direct approach was taken against the All Blacks to wear them out. It almost worked.
The reason I started by mentioning “Trevor Chappell” rugby is because, like Italy against England, South Africa can’t just show up with Plan A and expect to compete with the All Blacks or the Wallabies anymore.
In some areas South Africa clearly lacks world-class players, and that’s why they’ve had to start tailoring the way they play based on their opponent. The Boks have realised that they’re no longer guaranteed to be the most physically assertive team on the field and that they therefore need to be prepared for the possibility of facing more powerful opponents if they want to win.
As Italy coach Conor O’Shea remarked after his team’s Twickenham defeat: “We are not going to roll over, we are going to fight.”
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