South Africa had an ideal preparation for the World Cup last Friday with a 41-7 win over Japan in the host country. The Springboks ended up scoring 6 tries altogether and are now averaging 32.4 points scored per game for 2019, making them comfortably one of the most dangerous attacking sides in international rugby at the moment. While that kind of points average is usually associated with teams who run the ball from everywhere, this article will look at how South Africa took a less orthodox approach to creating scoring opportunities against Japan.
Off approximately 78 phases of play on Friday, South Africa kicked the ball every 2.6 phases, or a massive 38% of their own possession. To give you an idea of how that compares to other international teams; in a tight test match between Ireland and Wales the day after, Ireland kicked the ball every 6.1 phases on average, with Wales by comparison kicking every 6.6 phases. In other words, South Africa are kicking the ball a lot.
Looking just at these numbers, most teams would back their defence against a team that kicks the ball away every 3 phases without fail. So how did South Africa end up still scoring 41 points? Let’s take a look.
Going into the 5th minute of the game, Franco Mostert has won a turnover for South Africa after blocking a kick from Japan’s Kaito Shigeno. With Japan disorganised, South Africa move the ball to Eben Etzebeth in the middle of the field, who gets 5 metres over the gain-line after a strong carry in midfield. South Africa are suddenly in a great position to attack.
As we can see above there are large gaps appearing either side of Japan’s defence. With another Springbok winger out of shot creating a 7 vs. 4 on the left, it’s a prime opportunity to run the ball. However, South Africa take a less orthodox approach.
Despite Japan’s back-three dropping back, Willie Le Roux puts in a fantastic kick and suddenly Japan are under pressure just outside their tryline with a difficult 7 metre lineout to come.
As we can see in the image above, Mostert is again the man forcing a turnover-this time in the lineout-with Michael Leitch knocking the ball on in the air to give South Africa an attacking scrum metres from the Japanese tryline.
One minute later, after a few excellent angled unders lines from Lukhanyo Am and Le Roux to narrow the Japanese defence, Cheslin Kolbe is stepping his way over the try-line.
Looking at the last clip in isolation, you might look at this try and say that South Africa are an attacking team like any other and that this score was created by a good scrum set-play and some excellent passing. However, it’s how South Africa get into these positions in the first place that differentiates them from other teams.
In the lead up to the second try, South Africa again find themselves in a similar position, this time defending a 22 drop-out after pinning Japan back into their own half with another kick. Mostert is leaping again to win the ball and you can see Etzebeth-circled-working his way into the midfield for another big carry.
South Africa would constantly move the ball into midfield during the game before kicking. This is because having a midfield ruck draws up the Japanese defence’s wingers into the front-line of defence and leaves space in the back-field to kick into.
Rolling the clock on a few seconds, we see a familiar set-up. In the image below, once more there’s an option to run and Le Roux-circled-is in the pocket ready to kick.
As the next GIF shows, it doesn’t initially end up being as effective a kick this time but South Africa back their rush defence and that man Mostert makes a telling intervention again to smash back Timothy Lafaele and force Japan to kick out of their own half.
Crucially, rather than kicking from a position of strength like South Africa do, Japan are now forced to kick from a weaker position. With three Springbok defender’s jumping against two Japanese chasers, Le Roux wins the ball in the air and puts away Makazole Mapimpi to finish in the left corner.
As South Africa are beginning to rack up the points, you can start to see a trend to how they create scores; kick from a position of strength into the opposition half, pressure the other team into making mistakes and then score. Kick-pressure-score.
Their third try is similar with Faf de Klerk box-kicking, Kolbe chasing to force a knock-on and South Africa scoring from the ensuing scrum but I’d like to draw attention to the fourth try for the excellent work of Handre Pollard and Willie Le Roux in the build-up.
After winning a penalty and kicking to touch, South Africa are forced to throw to the front and set up a maul as the pass out wide isn’t on. As the picture above shows, Pollard-circled- is already signalling to De Klerk that he wants the ball to go to the forwards ahead of him. As the start of the next clip will reveal, a second later Pollard motions to the backs outside him to indicate what will happen in the phase after.
Le Roux’s work from here is also excellent. Chasing Pollard’s up-and-under, he taps the ball back to Kolbe. Rather than resting on his laurels, Le Roux instantly moves on to his next job.
As Kolbe sets a ruck up in the next clip, watch Le Roux in the 15 jersey as he moves back across the pitch, scans the backfield and lets Pollard know that he wants the pull-back pass. Once Le Roux gets his second touch, he fires a gorgeous long pass to Damian de Allende and seconds later South Africa are away for their fourth try and Mapimpi’s hat trick. The build up to this try shows great effort and awareness from Le Roux and without his contribution there’s no try here.
Although the fifth and sixth tries came from basic Japanese mistakes (an intercepted pass and a missed tackle), South Africa showed a clear kick-pressure-score approach for how they attacked throughout the game and garnered four tries from it.
With a high energy blitz defence in what is likely to be a hot and humid Japan, the Springboks look to have a great foil in their attacking kicking game. While kicking the ball away to score may seem counter-intuitive when looking to score, it requires less exertion than running the ball up the pitch, and plays to the strengths of a back three including the likes of Le Roux, Mapimpi, Kolbe and S’bu Nkosi.
Whether head coach Rassie Erasmus has more tricks up his sleeve at the World Cup remains to be seen but with the kick-pressure-score style, South Africa have a game plan that is ready-made for tournament rugby.
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