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Analysis of South Africa v France

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From Bill van Zyl


As I think about the rain, I wonder whether the Bok performance yesterday was much like yesterday’s rain. A blessing in many ways, but we do need the rain to continue throughout the winter…..

Has the Bok rugby drought broken? Is this the beginning of a new season for South African rugby? Or is it that old cliché of a single swallow not making it summer yet?

I do not want to be the one who rains on Allister Coetzee’s parade. He has won a Test match, and that is a good thing. I hope this is just the first of many Test match wins for Allister and the Springboks. I hope that the game we watched yesterday is the forerunner of continually improving Springbok rugby.

There were many things about the game that were worth celebrating; there were some very good moments, and in truth, there were some superb moments. But there were also some dire moments, perhaps too many of the dire moments……..

I want to start my discussion with one important accolade. Well done Warren Whiteley! The one thing that was hugely evident in yesterday’s Springbok effort was the arrival of a leader on the field. After the complete leadership vacuum of 2016 when the then team captain, Adriaan Strauss, simply disappeared into some invisible hole on the field of play and nobody took ownership of the leadership roles in the team it was a relief to see Warren Whiteley in charge. He was constantly talking to his players, geeing them up, congratulating good moments, clapping his hands to focus wandering attention, pointing, gesturing, barking commands. And, most importantly, working with the referee throughout the game.

He might not be the best No 8 in world rugby, but he certainly has that aura of leadership. If he stays in the job for long enough he can develop into a great captain at Test match level.

South Africa won a Test match against France. That is good news, but let us put the win into perspective. Much like the rain that fell over the Western Cape during the last week, it is a great start, but the drought has not yet broken. While good rains have fallen, the dams are still empty, the rivers are still stagnant, and the streams are just a trickle.

Think on this: The Springboks beat France, the sixth-ranked team in world rugby. And this was by no means a full-strength French team. It was closer to a French B team! Six Nations first choice flyhalf, Camille Lopez, is missing the tour to South Africa as he has opted to undergo surgery during the French off-season. Stade Français winger Djibril Camara missed the tour due to a passport problem, and all the Toulon and Clermont players who featured in the recent Top 14 final were rested for this Test. All of Xavier Chiocci, Guilhem Guirado, Arthur Iturria, Romain Taofifenua, and Damian Penaud watched this game from the grandstand.

We need to take a close look at how the Boks achieved their victory, analyze the strengths and weaknesses of both the squad and the individual players, and then look at what must be done to use this win as a foundation for the rest of the season.

Perhaps we should start by looking at the worst aspects of 2016 and see if we can identify any improvement in 2017?

During 2016 the Springbok defence was powder-puff at best. During the year end three test tour to the northern hemisphere the Boks made 299 tackles and missed 39. That translates into an 88,5% tackle success rate. They missed 11,5% of their tackles. Despite making so many tackles, it was the regularity with which they were dominated in the tackle that caused serious worry.

The Springboks have been much praised for a “much improved” defensive effort on Saturday against France, yet the statistics are still very worrying! While making 178 good tackles they missed 36 tackles for a tackle success rate of just 85%, and that is simply mediocre at best.

The saving of South Africa’s defensive effort was the much improved second line of defence and the huge improvement in the back-tackling effort. But that first line is still as leaky as the Möhne Dam after a visit by 617 Squadron.

The wide channels were a very big problem in this Test. Both wings were guilty of drifting off their defensive channel, particularly Raymond Rhule, who’s defensive frailties were targeted by the French, forcing him to make a tackle count of 12. He made 12 good tackles and missed just 1. This might seem impressive on paper, but his wing channel was left exposed on a number of occasions when he was simply not there to make the tackle. Courtnall Skosan was similarly guilty of leaving his wing exposed as he committed to the inside tackle instead of staying with the team strategy of drift defence at certain moments. His own tackling was a little suspect, making four and missing two for a 50% tackle success rate.

One such example of laxity by the wings was when Virimi Vakatawa found himself in space down inside the Boks' 22 and did well to get a pass out to Gaël Fickou, who was stopped just short of the try-line by a superb cover tackle from Jan Serfontein. The first line of the defence leaked but the second line stopped the danger.

The outside channels need attention immediately!

Whilst I am concerned about the number of tackles missed by the first line, I have to add that the pressure they put on the French backs was exemplary. They might have missed the initial tackle, but their presence in the face of the French attack was often sufficient to disrupt their flow. Forcing handling errors and risky offloads.

I remain concerned about the midfield defence. Jan Serfontein made 18 tackles, including that great try-saver on Fickou, but he missed four. An 83% tackles success rate in the critical inside centre channel is below average. Jesse Kriel only made 6 tackles, but he missed 2. A 75% tackle success rate is rather poor, I would suggest.

On the other hand the perceived defensive weakness of Elton Jantjies was nowhere to be seen as he made all 12 tackles he was asked to make. They might not have been physically dominating tackles, but they were enough to hold up the ball carrier until the cover defenders arrived.

The back three of Coetzee, Skosan and Rhule struggled with the French kicking game, often being caught slightly out of position and back peddling to catch the ball. This is an area that will be exposed by any team with an accurate kicking game!

The tackling amongst the forwards was exemplary. At the forefront of a massive effort was the much-maligned bad boy of South African Rugby, Eben Etzebeth. He made a massive 17 tackles, missing just 1 for a 94% tackle success rate. In addition his tackling was seriously dominant, stopping French ball carriers in their tracks time and again, carrying them back some meters on two significant occasions. It was an immense effort by the big guy.

His lock partner, Franco Mostert, had a less impressive defensive performance, making 9 tackles, but missing 4. Malcolm Marx had an immense game in the tight-loose, but there is a worrying niggle with his defensive effort, making 3 tackles but missing 2, a factor that is missed when his overall game was discussed by the TV panel pundits.

Warren Whiteley had his usual solid defensive game, making six tackles and missing none. Oupa Mohoje made 7 tackles, missing just 1, while Siya Kolisi made 14 tackles but slipped 3.

In essence, it was an improved defensive effort, but there are still areas of huge concern. Have no doubt that the All Black coaching staff have made some notes.

The next area of huge concern must be the Bok performance over the ball on the ground. Cold hard stats tell us the French won 98 rucks, and South Africa just 65. That is indicative of two things, firstly the French took the ball to ground more frequently than did the Boks, and that is a good thing. However, it is also indicative of a Bok failure to dominate on the ground. Take the analysis one step further and you find that both sides conceded 11 turnover on the ground. That is a bad thing!

Now the stats become worrying. The French won 98 rucks and conceded 11, or 9% of their ruck ball. South Africa won 65 rucks but also conceded 11. That is a worrying 14,5% of their own ruck ball lost! Against teams that feed off turnovers and quick counterattack that statistic would be game changing!

The truth lies in selection errors. South Africa took to the field without a fetcher in the run-on team nor waiting on the bench. The injury enforced absence of Francois Louw was particularly evident, with the other two stand-out fetchers currently available for South Africa, Jaco Kriel and Chris Cloete nowhere to been seen on Allister Coetzee’s radar.

South Africa played the game with three wide-running loose-forwards, and that will always be a bad thing. We are not playing Touch Rugby here. The Boks are seriously missing someone who plays towards the ball in both the fetching role and in making gains over the advantage line. Someone like Duane Vermeulen or Ruan Ackermann?

South Africa’s tactical kicking was vastly improved over the efforts of 2016, although Elton Jantjies first attempt at a corner kick drifted straight into touch while Andries Coetzee also over-cooked a couple, perhaps as a result of 1st Test adrenalin? South Africa only kicked the ball 20 times, and many of the kicks were controlled short range chips rather than trying to find territory deep inside the French half. It was better. Not great. Just better.

Handling errors remain a bit of a problem. South Africa made 23 handling errors, which is average for all international teams yet too many for a top team, yet the French made a massive 37 handling errors. Many of the French handling errors were made in the face of superb Springbok pressure on the ball, forcing hurried passes, speculative offloads, and a couple of Hail Mary throws. Poor handling frequently resulted in promising moments going awry for the men in blue.

The scrums creaked a bit in the beginning, instability on both sides of both of the scrums contributing, with Tendai Mtawarira crabbing while Frans Malherbe was guilty of over extending on the hit too many times. The Springboks found solidity the moment Steven Kitshoff took over on the loose-head side as he immediately scrummed straight.

Lineouts functioned fairly well, with Malcolm Marx having cured his throwing yips of 2016. Franco Mostert was caught short a couple of times as his lifters were slow, resulting in the French spoiling his ball a couple of times. Eben Etzebeth remained untouchable at two, both on his own ball and intercepting French ball as if it were intended for him!

For some obscure reason Oupa Mohoje, selected to add a lineout option for the Boks, was never used as a jumper. Oddly, he also scrummed at 8 in the Bok set-pieces despite being chosen as the blind-side flanker. I quote Allister Coetzee on this one:

"If you look at those three loose forwards in terms of what we want, we want a good lineout option. We know Warren is a great lineout option but we need the fourth one in Oupa Mohoje and he's been very good at that. If you look at what he also brings defensively, he's very good."

So why did you not use him in the lineouts? Not too sure what that was all about?

An issue that needs urgent attention by the Attack coach, Franco Smith, is the way the Bok backline takes 3 out of 4 balls passed down the line standing still or at a one-step run. There is no running onto the ball with pace or power at all. It is static and allows better defences than that of the French to get right over the “gain” line and into your face before the ball gets to the midfield. A backline needs to go forward to be a proper attacking unit, and the Boks were not doing that.

I am still unsure of Elton Jantjies’ ability under pressure. The French allowed him acres of space behind the set pieces and on clearance kicks and he remains untested in 2017. I will reserve my opinion until I have seen what happens when Ardie Savea, Sam Cane, and the like are coming at him.

As the dust settles over Pretoria and happy Bok supporters sing their way into the night, I guess we can say this this performance was a step in the right direction. It was far from perfect, but it was vastly improved after the annus horribilis that was 2016.

They were far more committed, better organized, playing to a discernable plan, and better disciplined too. And they were captained by a man who lead and payed with passion.

Yes, there were problems. There is plenty of room for improvement, but this was a positive start to 2017.

Like the recent rains in the Western Cape, it was a positive start, but we need a lot more.

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