South Africa’s Attack – are they better than we think?

Let’s put this out there from the off, South Africa is not a boring side. They are a side that wins first and entertains second, they are also a side that attacks.

It’s often ignored for the deeper discussions around performance but the most important stat in any game is the scoreboard. Count all the tackles made/missed or turnovers won you want, the scoreboard at the final whistle will win out and at that stage no one cares which team had the more elegant attack.

Professional sport is about winning first and foremost. Despite what Ian Foster will tell you, international teams are not there to win the casual fan over, not there to grow the game of Rugby to new audiences, that’s World Rugby’s job. 

That doesn’t mean teams shouldn’t strive to attack, and we’ll come back to this, but let’s be clear, winning and losing is the bench-mark that the vast majority of professional athletes are judged on. They are there to win. 

2019 and beyond.

Let’s take a slight detour by way of the 2019 Rugby Championship, and ask what does this table tell us?

Very little really, it tells us South Africa won the 2019 Rugby Championship, they won 2 games and scored double the points they conceded.

The Hidden Truth.

What the table really doesn’t show us is that in that same 2019 Rugby Championship South Africa played probably some of the best-attacking Rugby in recent memory. 

I don’t mean they scored a couple of nice tries. I mean they crushed Australia in Johannesburg 37-15, walloped Argentina 15-46 in Salta and drew with New Zealand 16-16 in Wellington (Nic Berry the ref on that day).

10 tries in three games nearly all of them absolute beauties but the record books simply show little more than the won/lost column.

Take the Points!

What is very clear about South Africa is they have the same strict approach to points that all great teams have and that is you don’t waste them. As long as the game has had penalty goals the most successful teams have been built around a gun kicker. Anyone telling you otherwise simply doesn’t know what they are talking about.

If you cast your mind back and think about the great Springbok sides of the modern era it’s very clear that is the Bokkes DNA. 1995 had Stransky, 1999 team (the team that fell just short) had de Beer. 2007 Percy Montgomery, 2009 (Lions) Pienaar and Steyn, 2019 Pollard. 

That doesn’t mean these are kicking teams, it just means when points are on offer they took them and kept the scoreboard working in their favour.  This current South African team is no different, they play for pressure, build a score and then, once the game is all but won, they play a bit.

That’s not boring Rugby, that’s sensible, pragmatic Rugby that every good team in the world executes in tight games (even Ian Foster gets that).

What changed?

Of course, this is largely the same team that ripped it up in 2019. So the question it’s probably fair to ask is why can’t they score tries for fun as they did in 2019. 

Well, a few reasons:

  1. They are a young squad in terms of development. 
  2. They are just back together as a squad after 15 months out.
  3. Teams have figured them out.
  4. Expectation weighs heavy.

This current coaching collective took over in March 2018, their first match in charge was the defeat to Wales in Washington DC on 2nd June and by the time they took to the 2019 TRC they’d been a playing squad for only 12 months. I believe lifting the Webb Ellis trophy after 17 months together was all the more impressive for this fact.

17 months is not long at all, certainly not in terms of building a robust attacking side that can adapt when placed under pressure but they were getting there before Covid derailed everything they were doing. 10-12 months where many players weren’t even playing Rugby let alone international Rugby.

You can hopefully understand why that sensational attacking promise seen in the 2019 TRC has withered on the vine.

Also key is that teams have had time to work them out. It doesn’t matter how good your attack coach is and believe me, Mzwandile Stick is a brilliant attack coach, when a team with the quality of Steve Tandy as Defence Coach has all that time to analyse you then you’re on the back foot before you even get to the changing rooms.

(Set Piece aside) Attacking play is the most difficult part of the Rugby Jigsaw and whatever you think there is no way a fluid efficient ball in hand attack can be built in a matter of weeks. Attack needs trust, understanding and most importantly playing together.

The final point of Expectation is a difficult one to explain, it’s intangible and impossible to show in any worthy analysis. But I’m convinced it will have had an impact on how the Springboks approach their Rugby.

In 2018 and 2019 no one knew who South Africa was. I mean sure we all knew the team, knew they were good but did you have them in your list of teams likely to win the World Cup? I didn’t, nor did many others. With New Zealand and England, the favourites for the tournament, plus getting smashed in the pool stages, to see SA lift the trophy on 2nd November 2019 was pretty stunning.

Now everyone knows the Bokkes are the real deal including the Bok’s and their fans.  So they can’t be the under dogs anymore. They have to win, to prove they are true champions. Teams also have to take them seriously and prepare to face the World Champions. That brings some genuine focus to their opponent’s mind and everything goes up a level.

Boring Rugby.

“Yeah, but it’s the South African way to play boring, truck it up Rugby.”

Well, that’s clearly not true. In 2018 they beat England by playing brilliant attacking Rugby when the game was all but lost. Then as we saw in 2019, they scored tries galore. In fact, only two of their 10 tries in the TRC were scored by forwards, a pick and go by de Jager and Mbonambi went over from a lineout drive. Lood de Jagers try actually came after a scintillating break by Peter Steph du Toit in his own half.

Even now in 2021, their boring Rugby has produced against the Lions defence 5 of the best tries you’re likely to see in test Rugby and a further 5 from their two games vs Argentina.

I’d argue with anyone who says South Africa don’t play ambitious Rugby. When people say South Africa don’t attack or that they are boring what they mean is they don’t play like the All Blacks but then, no one does and those that do soon find out the Kiwis do it better than them.

But what South Africa do consistently for 80 minutes is attack, both with and without the ball.

The evolution of South Africa’s attack.

They attack the opponent’s lineout, they attack the opponent’s scrum, they come forward in defence at such a rate of knots that someone is getting smashed no matter what. With the ball they kick to go forward largely to preserve energy so they can bring it when it’s on, they kick to compete, they come around the corner and smash the defence in front of them and then when it matters you get tries.

That constant coming forward, that constant piling on of the pressure is about as attacking a focused mindset as you can get.

Most will agree that one of the easiest things to defend is a laborious lateral attack. Moving the ball across the line is nothing more than a target for a good defence, just ask Eliott Daly. The key to the modern game is attacking where the defence isn’t and as simple a concept as that is it seems beyond many pundits ability to comprehend.

Let’s again look back to that 2019 Rugby Championship what defined the Springboks attack?

Short side attack patterns, close pinpoint passing in narrow channels, Wingers interchanging with their scrumhalf, flankers chipping ahead for the score. It’s a style of attack that makes absolute sense in the modern game. Far more than left to right passing pattern with sliding blockers.

Let’s explain: Defences spread and fill the field. You have 13 or 14 players in one big wide line filling the 15 to 15 channel. With most modern defences we also see the under folding defence – the Lions used it repeatedly. The All Blacks use it, Ireland uses it, Wales use it…. Well, you get the point. A lateral attack pattern plays right into that. You go across they fold under and the defence is there if/when a line break is made.

Finding space is difficult, but do you know where the defences are often under-resourced? Almost always in behind, or on the short side (and past that behind the defensive line).

Attack the short side, manage to make that break and there is no under-fold, there is just cover defence. Any kid who’s run a Sunday morning channel drill on the insistence of their coach knows that once you’re through, in that narrow channel, you’re in control. Flood the channel, left-right arrowhead, draw the player and pass.It’s exactly the type of Rugby South Africa played all through the 2019 TRC and in the World Cup. Remember Mapimpi’s try? Short side attack, left, right support.

The Springboks adapted, over the course of the Lions series, we saw a fair amount of kicking to regather/pressure as they nailed this part of their game plan down. Kolbe try vs the Lions? Short side attack (off a turnover) and support flooding the channel. 

We also saw them adding kick to score to their repertoire, Mapimpi and Am both benefiting and then vs Argentina a wonderful kick to score from Jantjes.

There is no denying they have the skills to play an all-court game they just choose when to and I think what we’ll see more of as time goes on, is a more complete and rounded attack.

The Case for Lukhanyo Am.

Despite Matt Dawson’s rambling’s South Africa has long had a team full of world-class players. Complacency long left the building and the B&I Lions came knowing not only did South Africa have the best pack in the world but also the best Scrum Half in the world, the best inside Center in the World the best defensive 13 in the world (who just happened to be a brilliant attacking player) and aside from New Zealand quite possibly the best counter-attacking back three in the world. 

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Let’s take a moment to talk about Lukhanyo Am, because I think he neatly sums up the misperception of South Africa. 

27 with only 19 caps in four years he’s often overlooked in the attacking conversation. The fact of it is though that Lukhanyo Am is about as interesting a piece in this puzzle as you’ll find. 

When Am lined up for the Bok’s in the 2019 World Cup final it was only his 14th appearance in the Springbok Jersey, can you now imagine a Springbok side without him? It’s almost unthinkable and all the more impressive when you realise he’s keeping Jesse Kriel sat on the bench.

Hands down he is the best defensive 13 in the world. Abrasive and intelligent, he reads the opposition attack like no other 13 I can think of in recent memory. He’s also deceptively quick and that allows him to recover from his mistakes. You beat Am you deserve to score, the Bok’s defence is built off Am and de Allende’s defensive management.

All that said though, if you ask many who the best attacking 13 in the world is, would Lukhanyo Am be the first name on the list? Probably not.

I would argue though that it might actually be his attacking ability and not his defence that was the bigger contribution to the Springboks winning the World Cup and Lions series respectively.

Are there many 13’s who would have the awareness to make that no-look pass to Mapimpi in a World Cup final? If yes, let’s also remember that was Am’s second touch in that attack having been the player who saw the short side space and initiated the raid into the English 22 in the first place.

When Henry Slade dropped the ball in contact seven minutes later it was again that man Am who had the presence of mind to play the ball off the floor to du Toit to launch Kolbe’s stunner. No one, regardless of playing under advantage, would have blamed Am for just playing it safe and killing the ball on the ground, eeking out a few more precious moments of possession as they ran the clock down. 

But in a moment of extreme pressure, he reverted to type, kept the ball alive and the killer blow was struck and while the world was flooded with Kolbe memes Am brushed himself off and went right back to work.

In the third test of the Lions series the talk is of what may have been, the excitement Russell brought to the game. The moment of the match though was unquestionably Cheslin Kolbe’s try and it was a brilliant piece of attacking play by Am who from a kick turn over, stepped into Ali Price to commit him and passed out the back to free a full pace Le Roux and set them on their way. 

A week earlier, in the second test how many other players would read de Klerk’s dainty little chip over the Lions defence to score the try that put the 2nd test out of the Lions reach?

He may not be your traditional ball in hand, gliding 13 with an outside break but he contributes so much more in attack than many would think. Those close skills honed working with Felix Jones just means he can do it in a different way and that’s really the key to understanding where South Africa’s going with their attack.

They aren’t about the big flamboyant east to west attack, they are about the details, the skills in contact once the defender is committed. The way they play through a defence means they often win the little moments that make a game swing massively in their direction.

And that is why they are so good. The game is ultimately very simple, you score more than your opponent and you win. South Africa score lots of points. In those three 2019 Rugby Championship games above they blasted through 96 points for a +51 points difference.

Fast forward to 2021 and in their 5 games against Tier 1 opponents (the B&I Lions and Argentine) they’ve scored 124 points across the 5 games.

Brutal defence, nullifying skilful tries saw one of the toughest series in Rugby come down to 1 score and when they needed both the skills and the mental capacity to take the moment they had it ready to go. On reflection could there have been more running Rugby? Sure, absolutey, maybe but if you want to watch that style of constant passing rugby there is a team in Australia finding out it’s not quite that simple.

Sat watching the games most people were just enjoying the tense push and shove (quite literally) of the games.

Rugby is a sport that can be tough to watch, I can think of very few sports where teams can negate each other so drastically. Perhaps though, it’s time we accept that in a sport that is about exploiting space, doing so is always more important than how you do so. The game has moved on.



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