In a performance that sometimes felt like a runaway steam train, no part of South Africa’s game put more fuel in the fire last Saturday than their indefatigable defence against England. Whether it was their consistent willingness to get off the ground, or the continual pressure put on English players, South Africa’s work-rate to disrupt in defence was relentless. This analysis will take a look at some of the tactical hallmarks of the Springbok blitz defence against England and how it allows them to bring their World Cup winning work-ethic into the game.
The 13-2 Defence
Rugby tactics have evolved quite a bit over the last 12 years but one of the most popular changes across the board in recent times has been in backfield defence.
Going back as far as the 2007 World Cup, ruck laws at the time disincentivised teams from running the ball and lead to a lot more kicking as a result. Backfield defences reflected this with teams dropping 3 and sometimes 4 players into their own half to cover kicks with a pendulum defence structure; as shown in the image above.
However, with the average kicks per game steadily decreasing with every World Cup since (56 in 2007, 41 in 2011 and 39 in 2015), and running rugby coming to the fore, defensive coaches have had to adapt to the changing tactical landscape. This is where the 13-2 blitz defence comes in.
As the example above shows, the 13-2 defence allows teams an extra player in the front line to blitz the pass while still covering any kicking possibilities. In this instance it’s Makazole Mapimpi and Willie le Roux who are the 2 defenders covering in behind.
From this English lineout, South Africa would defend their try-line for a remarkable 4 minutes without a break in play before forcing England to take 3 points.
Width in the line
Whereas many teams defend from the inside out, South Africa, and Lukhanyo Am-circled- in particular, were regularly standing in unusually wide positions during the final to try and stop England running around them.
With England attacking from their own try-line in the picture above, the Springboks actually drop 4 players back in expectation of a clearing kick. Owen Farrell recognises this and sees an opportunity to pass instead of booting the ball.
As the play develops, Am’s wide position allows him to cover both Elliot Daly and Jonny May on the wing while giving his teammates time to work across the pitch. After Daly claims the ball from a fortuitous bounce and passes to May, Am still manages to sprint back and make an assist tackle on the winger outside his 22.
Although England are now further up the field, Am’s original width and covering tackle aids South Africa in getting back into their 13-2 structure while blitzing the clearing kick that follows.
Another instance of Am standing wide happens in the 33rd minute as England look to move the ball into space.
Damian De Allende’s pace on the inside is a great help here, forcing Farrell as the playmaker to pass early. Am and Faf de Klerk keeping their width then allows them to pressure England into a handling error while enabling the cover defence to fill in the gaps.
Pressuring the playmaker
As the previous clips in the article have hinted at, South Africa regularly pressure the playmaker in order to disrupt attacking teams and knock them out of their rhythm. This attitude is probably best exemplified by a passage of play following a lineout at the start of the second half.
In the following clip, keep an eye on the blond Pieter-Steph Du Toit in the 7 jersey for South Africa.
While the 7 going after the opposition 10 off lineouts is nothing unusual in rugby, Du Toit continues to track Ford around the pitch for the rest of the play. Big hits like the one towards the end of clip stop Ford from resetting in attack early and spotting the spaces in the Springbok defence.
England’s ruck ball from the next phase is messy and South Africa again pressure another playmaker in Ben Youngs at 9. His pass to Daly is rushed and De Allende blocks down the fullback as he looks to kick.
Although Du Toit doesn’t tackle Ford initially as he moves the breaking ball on, he manages to get another hit on him from the next phase.
Ford eventually decides that running the ball isn’t an option and kicks the ball back to South Africa. However, the Springboks are clearly enjoying defending at this stage and kick the ball back to England again.
Having received the ball, Daly looks to get it across to the other side of the pitch. As an aside, it’s noticeable that South Africa are still keeping their width in defence, with Siya Kolisi-circled-blocking the space out wide and trusting inside defenders to fill the gaps.
There’s no prizes for guessing who tackles Ford after the ensuing ruck.
In a lung-bursting run of play that lasts over 2 minutes, Du Toit’s effort to shadow Ford tells and England pass the ball into touch to give South Africa the ball back.
Taking time out of the ball
While the 13-2 defensive structure, staying wide in defence and pressuring the playmaker all help, perhaps the most important enabler of South Africa’s blitz defence is their ability to slow the ball in the ruck.
So why is taking time out of the ball so important?
In essence, quick ball is the lifeblood of any attack as it allows teams to catch defences out of position and makes it easier to to run the ball up the pitch. The general benchmark for ‘quick ball’ in international rugby is approximately 3 seconds or less between the time the tackle is made and the 9 passes from the ruck. As a result, defenders taking away that time is invaluable to the defence keeping it’s shape and disrupting the opposition attack.
The Springboks do this in a number of ways, whether it’s in the initial tackle or by trying to compete for the ball in the ruck that follows.
In the example below, England have just won a South African kick in the air and are looking to counter in the Springbok half.
Malcolm Marx and Vincent Koch first look to hold up George Kruis and rip the ball in the tackle, before Marx attempts a turnover in the ruck that follows. Although the Springbok pair don’t win the ball here, they have crucially bought their teammates 8 seconds to realign in defence.
Billy Vunipola still somehow manages to speed up the ball off the next phase and, after another quick recycle off a Jamie Goerge carry, England go again.
With England’s attack now gaining momentum and danger building, De Allende and Du Toit look to disrupt that momentum and intervene for South Africa.
Despite the best efforts of Tom Curry to fight to the ground, the Springbok defenders manage to hold him up for 6 seconds, perform a choke tackle and win the scrum turnover.
This was not a standalone example in the game either. A review of every South African defensive ruck in the match revealed that the Springboks looked to compete a remarkable 55% of the time in the initial tackle or ruck that followed.
In conclusion, having conceded only 12 points per game on average in 2019-and only three tries at the World Cup-South Africa’s Jacques Nienaber-coached defence has been the definition of stingy. As the maxim goes, defence wins championships, and champions is what South Africa are once again.
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