Taking Charge of the Transition: How South Africa make the most of turning defence into attack

Despite a tight game being expected in many quarters, the Springboks emphatically flipped the script to claim a convincing World Cup on Saturday. In the process of winning by a final scoreline of 32 points to 12, South Africa put in a complete performance; showing strong structures across their attack, defence and the set-piece. While those facets of South Africa’s play deserve praise, this article will focus on the Springboks play between these moments of structure and see how they took charge of the transition to win the World Cup final.

So, when we talk about ‘the transition’, what do we mean? In essence, ‘the transition’ is any moment in a game where play becomes unstructured as a result of a sudden change from defence to attack, or vice versa.

With defensive structures becoming increasingly difficult to break down using attacking back-line moves or intricate phase-play, coaches such as Rassie Erasmus have turned to the transition as another way to generate points.

Let’s take a look at an example from early in the final to illustrate what the transition looks like in a game.

Against a structured South African defence in their own 22, England change from attack to defence instantly by kicking the ball towards Handré Pollard his own half.

With Pollard isolated from his retreating teammates and the English defence now on the front-foot, this sudden transition from attack to defence by England puts them in a strong position to turn over Pollard if he runs the ball back.

Despite play now becoming unstructured, Pollard smartly recognises the inherent danger of running with the ball and chooses to counter with a kick of his own instead.

As Pollard brilliantly claims his own kick in the air, it is the English defence that has now become disorganised. South Africa now have the advantage of running onto the ball in attack, and being able to see where the space is, whereas England are still trying to get back into position.

After a series of carries to stop the English defence covering the width of the field, South Africa create a 4 vs 3 try-scoring opportunity through Willie le Roux.

In the end, England’s Sam Underhill does well to cover across and pressure Le Roux into knocking on. However, even early on in the final, we can see South Africa taking charge of the transition phase to create try-scoring chances.

This situation is a prime example of the kind of opportunity that playing in the transition creates and why South Africa look to create these moments as often as possible.

Although it didn’t directly result in a try-scoring opportunity, Duane Vermeulen’s turnover penalty win to give South Africa the 3-0 lead is another example of how the Springboks look to create transition opportunities when they don’t have the ball.

South Africa were relentless in the ruck all day against England. Indeed, of the 94 defensive rucks they had in the game, the Springboks competed for the ball a remarkable 52 times in either the original tackle or on the ground.

In this example above , after Owen Farrell has to recover a poor pass from Billy Vunipola; he gets pulled to the ground by Pollard. This allows Vermeulen-with the aid of Siya Kolisi-to swoop over the ball and win the penalty.

Even after the penalty is won, it’s noticeable at the end of the clip that Le Roux takes the ball and scans the English defence to see if a transition attack is still alive.

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While some players are happy to lock onto the ball and wait for the turnover penalty from the referee, South Africa consistently showed a willingness in the game to use the turnover as a way to create transition opportunities in defence and counter-attack quickly.

In the clip above we can see Vermeulen winning the turnover penalty but still recycling the ball for his teammates. With the English defence sitting deep after originally anticipating attacking with the ball themselves, South Africa can transition to countering straight away.

The general rule off a turnover is to play two passes in order to move the ball away from the point of contact and Franco Mostert is alive to this two-pass rule straight away. Only some excellent scramble defence from Tom Curry and Anthony Watson stops South Africa exploiting a 3 vs. 2 overlap on the wing.

The benefit of Vermeulen’s work here is that, even though South Africa don’t score from this transition attack, they still use the penalty advantage to take a 9-6 lead from Pollard’s ensuing place-kick.

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South Africa’s consistent pursuit of broken-play situations would pay off again in the 66th minute for Makazole Mapimpi’s try.

The sequence starts with a speculative chip kick from Le Roux in behind an organised English front-line. Although the ball doesn’t bounce up for Mapimpi, it turns the English defence while isolating Elliot Daly. Mapimpi and Pieter-Steph Du Toit chase Le Roux’s kick diligently and are unlucky to not drag Daly over the sideline as they make contact.

With England now on the back foot, they look to rescue the situation by setting up a box-kick for Ben Youngs. The intention here is to flip the switch and get their own defence going forward again.

Mark Wilson nearly does just that for his team with an excellent low tackle on the covering Le Roux, allowing his teammates to pile into the resulting ruck. However, although England ostensibly look like they’re now in a decent defensive position, South Africa are ready to take charge of the transition again.

As Faf de Klerk looks to pass the ball in the image below, England have misaligned in defence. Winger Watson-circled-is defending the edge of the ruck, rather than out wide ,and the slower George Kruis and Joe Marler are on the wing. South Africa’s commitment to the transition has paid off once more by creating a disorganised defensive line.

Lukhanyo Am spots this mismatch and calls for the ball immediately.

After quick hands from Am and Malcolm Marx to the wing, Mapimpi puts Am into space with a chip kick and Am returns the favour with an unselfish pass back outside. From a situation where Le Roux originally didn’t have many options in attack, South Africa have once again taken advantage of the transition to provide the score.

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With South Africa’s work in defence and on the transition being key to them winning the World Cup, it’s fitting that the final score that sealed it came from broken play again.

Following Marx burying Henry Slade in a tackle to force a knock-on, Du Toit draws the fullback and Cheslin Kolbe’s magic footwork does the rest. From the goose-step to slow Marler, to the powerful step off his right-foot to beat Farrell, it’s a brilliant piece of evasion from the winger that will live long in the memory.

Notwithstanding some early criticism of their style of play, South Africa gave a fitting final riposte with a performance that was as powerful as it was precise against England. Kicking to create opportunities and defending to win the ball back; South Africa took charge of the transition, took England out of their structures and are now taking the Webb Ellis Cup home too.

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EK



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