In part one of our look at the 2017 Dubai Sevens final we looked at the opening three tries from South Africa’s win vs New Zealand. Today we’ll look at what South Africa did when New Zealand have the ball.
Speak to anyone in sevens and ask them to describe the Blitz Bokkes and I assure you defence will feature prominently.
It would be too simplistic to say their game is built entirely on defence but they conceded only 8 tries in the entire 2017 tournament. There's just no getting away from the fact defensive focus a huge part of this teams identity. Bringing that physical hard nosed edge of traditional South African play and coupling it with intelligent defensive decision making.
The Blitz (Bokke) Defence
Let’s pick up where we left off in part one and at 2:42 we again see an almost identical kick off from South Africa, into the same area and on the same player.
The kick is slightly too long and a sly little block from Wade means Dickson on this occasion has time to clear the ball from the chasing team and New Zealand for the first time are in a position to attack.
South Africa’s kick chase formation allows that middle of the field kick chase and continued line speed from South Africa to force New Zealand into shuffling the ball across the face of the oncoming defence looking for space.
The movement is lateral and produces no forward momentum.
They fail to engage the South Africans until they reach Ravouvou on the wing and the Bokkes are able to continue to eat up all of New Zealand’s positive space.
Ultimately it’s very poor play from a tired New Zealand. The final result of which is a knock on as Ravouvou cuts back attempting to find forward momentum against a soft shoulder.
As we see below, from the ensuing scrum, the fatigue Sevens imposes on it’s players is incredible and South Africa struggle to get going, resulting in a knock on as Kok, after a fantastic run, releases the ball and tries to regain his feet knocking on in the process.
It’s good play from Kok and I believe this is just tiredness impacting on his ability to regather and retain the ball.
New Zealand try to build something but again we get a great example of how South Africa are able to immediately transition from attack to defence.
First they focus on pressuring the ball and forcing New Zealand to scramble in attack. It buys South Africa time and as the ball is recycled look who's back on his feet and in the defensive line? Kok!
There is some space to the left of the ruck and which New Zealand look to attack.
But we can also see from the gif that not only has Kok got back into the defensive line, South Africa have got their ruck defence spot on with Snyman in behind as the guard and Africa in the deeper sweeper position ready to flood up or track the ball as it goes wide.
So while that looks like a huge amount of space in between the ruck and Kok there actually isn’t very much.
It’s very well defended and Synman closes down the space quickly with Kok also stepping back and in to buy some valuable time.
With Kok snapping in there is a huge risk that New Zealand will move the ball one more and attack outside but fantastic decision making from South Africa to hinge in closes the wider attack off.
That pressure forces New Zealand's Knewstubb to step in and when they slip South Africa are straight on the mistake.
New Zealand do well to recycle and then work a nice one two move straight off the touch rugby field first going left and then back to the right with the acting half back bouncing out to receive the ball.
It's then a beautiful pass that creates an overlap on the South Africans left flank.
Smith instinctively backs off and buys time for his inside defence to reconnect with him and offer support.
It’s intelligent, he doesn’t panic and waits until a a very tired Mikkleson seeing his options dissipate looks to cut back and is nailed by Smith in a fantastic tackle.
Unfortunately Smith doesn't release properly, using the Mikkleson as a spring to bounce to his feet from. It’s good refereeing from Damon Murphy to spots this.
The result is an exhausted New Zealand opt to kick for valuable meters and some time off the clock.
Trailing 19-0 this may seem a strange tactic but with tired minds and bodies New Zealand’s two objectives now are to try and preserve energy until half time without conceding any more points and get out of their red zone (hopefully creating a scoring opportunity).
It's a very tired and poor kick from New Zealand and it gains very little ground. At the lineout Synman is able to fill the space in the middle, Smith stays wide moving into the middle left and as New Zealand just shuffle the ball across the face of the South African defence they are able to just push up and out tracking the ball towards the edge.
The idea from New Zealand is to get the ball to the outer edges and turn the defence to chase them.
The problem is with the ball movement being so lateral, so deep and so slow New Zealand offer no genuine threat to the South African tackle line allowing the Bokkes to patiently dritf and isolate Ravavovu.
In watching the South Africans defend you could be forgiven for thinking that by getting taken wide and giving up all those yards it’s poor defence. But sometimes defence in sevens is about closing off the player from his support.
Sevens generally uses a pocket system to extract the ball from those outer edges and as New Zealand are so flat and have no depth on their attack there is little scope for them to do this.
So by allowing New Zealand to attack this space South Africa are actually pushing them a little wider then they’d like. With the South Africans middle defence closing the pocket off behind the ball they force New Zealand into taking the contact allowing South Africa a chance to reset, which is exactly what they want and New Zealand don’t.
We can see Ravouvou goes for the Squeeze Ball and Kok again drops his weight on top. This time Kok is deemed to have not released before attacking the ball and is penalised.
Yes, it’s a penalty but it’s also smart from South Africa who are clearly killing New Zealand's attacking momentum, stopping the recycle and denying them the chance to attack an unset defence.
Rugby, the only sport where it’s compulsory to both commend and condemn cynical play in the same breath.
This constant attacking of the ball carrier in the opposition half is a tactic South Africa continually use and this time we can see that even though the penalty was conceded it’s allowed SA to reset their defence and a now exhausted New Zealand are faced with the prospect of trying to break that down.
Even at 19-0 down the speed of New Zealand’s movement to take the penalty tells us everything we need to know.
They are both exhausted and struggling to find a way into this game and even though it’s a well worked set play (faking the loop to attack back left using Mickelsson – Ireland fans might recognise this move) we can see South Africa get numbers to the ball.
Note how this time in their own half they do not attack the ball and when it’s recycled we can see how quickly they’ve reset ready to get off the line and pressure New Zealand.
While this defensive line may not look perfectly set they are connected in the middle and it’s just a matter of linking up with Snyman.
Which they do getting up over the gain line and making New Zealand again play in that negative space. By the time New Zealand actively engage the South African defenders they’ve made a good 20-25m.
Having made those hard yards South Africa can now ease off and again wait for New Zealand to make their move. Predictably New Zealand hit Ravavovou out wide.
Perhaps Smith could have held his width more on this but South Africa work hard to close him down the wide run. It's a combination of great play by Ravouvou, tired South African chasers and finally a clumsy entry resulting in South Africa going off their feet that kills the ruck and gives New Zealand another penalty.
While it’s clear South Africa are shipping penalties here, we need to remember two things:
- The first is it’s the end of two hard days of Sevens and these guys are exhausted (I know i keep saying this but its hard to understand how tired these players are).
- The second, as we’ll see the ends justify the means.
This time New Zealand do go fast only to find South Africa are set early.
New Zealand again shuffle the ball across the face of South Africa allowing them to back off slightly buying time to force an isolated Mikkelson to step back and try to work something infield before attempting a speculative offload.
South Africa regather, counter attack and finally an exhausted New Zealand kick the ball dead to end the half.
3 minutes of intense hardworking defence means New Zealand end up exactly back where they started.
Did South Africa make mistakes? Yes absolutely but they worked hard and even the penalties are clearly calculated risks taken when they feel the need to slow the attackers momentum down.
For me this is the game. New Zealand have just gone 7 minutes of fast physical rugby with nothing to show. In fact in the entire 7 minutes the closest they have gotten to scoring is a speculative offload from Mikkleson that tired hands put to ground and South Africa turn into attack. South Africa in contrast have looked comfortable and in control.
Their Physicality making the contact area a lottery for the New Zealanders in possession and a rear guard act in defence of their line killing any hopes of New Zealand getting back into it.
While they may not have the wow factor of Fiji and New Zealand, I think this first half perfectly encapsulates why South Africa have been one of the best sides in the world, consistently in and around the business end of the each leg of the world series. Structure, fitness, physical edge and solid basics of tackling passing coupled with strong decision making are all key components of the blitz Bokkes sevens DNA.
Next – How to beat the Bokkes.