Today I take a passage of play from our game against the All Blacks in July to illustrate a little bit about how the Boks like to attack. It will start behind our own halfway line, through 10 phases, and end close to the All Blacks tryline with one debatable moment. One thing you must get out of your mind, the Boks is not boring, and they are not predictable…
Before we look at the example, to understand the Boks you must understand Heyneke Meyer. Where a coach like Jake White want his team to play very structured, with specific kicking areas and territorial dominance all important, Meyer have rather given the Springboks a common approach which they must implement themself on the field. As you will see below, it as a common toolbox (tool boks!) of shapes, moves and alignments that they can use depending on what situations arises.
Meyer have said himself a million times over that you can have match strategy and opponent-specific tactics, but what matter more is what happen from ruck to ruck, from phase to phase.
So below I have a picture of every phase in this passage of play. We can look at what options was available at that moment, what the Bok shape was, how structured it was, where it went, and how the Boks created more shape based on the unpredictable things that happen.
1. Lineout. Set move – flat ball from Handre to three rushing Bok loose forwards. All Blacks drift out a little bit, Schalk take the ball come back inside and make many yards in the hole they leave. Important to notice, these three forwards run in a way that give them options. They do not run in linear support just to clean or drive, like a classic pod (behind the carrier), they are ready to receive a pass if it is on.
2. After that unexpected gain, Ruan look up and see Handre, but Damian is already running onto the ball at a area of broken AB alignment that have appeared, so he give it to him. Damian can give to Jesse, but he make some nice metres in that hole. Meters is like sweeties for Damian.
3. Ruan continue to go left, and this is good basic rugby. We take play to one side of the field hoping we can create space elsewhere. This is a pod of BIG guys together – Lood, Beast and Eben, so we must assume this is a SET idea. They have peeled around the back of play to set up near the touchline. A big drive here will hopefully “lock in” those All Blacks defenders before the Boks play to their right again. Notice how many of them is already in that red box.
4. Ruan does go right now. Again, he can give to Handre, who will have his own options, but he goes to Jannie. The All Blacks do NOT like to commit to rucks unless the steal is on – they prefer to spread. Ruan have notice that they are drifting back inside, so he need to commit them again. He give to Jannie, who see two men is committed to him already, so he pop one-out to Bissie to use the space. Retallick will notice and shoot up excellently to stop Bissie going too far.
5. What is this! The Boks has kept the ball alive beautifully since Bismarck’s tackle point, and they attack all the way over to the other touchline. They have created precious space and now they are using it. Notice how many All Blacks is still at top of frame. Also notice how Schalk have “fixed” Nonu inside before he pass. Boks now has some wiggle room and the blue arrow is where Hendriks will be tackled.
6. Ah yes, test rugby is not easy. We cannot just run free and happy like we are in a schoolboy game, no matter what the fans say. After a quick pick and go by Damian, we see that the All Blacks defence line is back up across the field. We must start the hard work over again. Notice the Boks still remaining in the yellow box, waiting to become part of next potential shape on that side. They will be patient and see what develop. Bissie carries up at a small space.
7. Handre get the ball at this ruck and realise he have some forwards in front of him so he decide to take them on. Seat of the pants, heads-up rugby. To give you a idea how All Blacks don’t contest – their forwards do not even contest for the ball at this ruck, even though they are all there and they only have Cornal and Ruan to contend with. They just want to spread, spread, spread.
8. Now Willie come into the line as playmaker because Handre is engaged. Ruan feeds him at 10 – he can kick, pass or go for it. As you can see by the blue arrow, Willie is seduce by a small break in the All Blacks line and try to sniff it out, but they manage to scramble.
9. Next ruck is messy with feet on the ball slowing it down for Ruan. Ruan could hit Jannie or Schalk, but Jesse Kriel have decided to join the party by coming in on a nice inside line. Unfortunately because of the mess, the ball is delayed, so Jesse take the ball quite static.
10. The tryline is close, now the Boks must bash it up like the dinosaurs they are. Of course they do not do this :) Ruan to Schalk, who do his lovely Michael du Plessis impression and draw-and-pass to Bissie. Bissie offload to Heinrich, who put Nonu flat on his bum before offloading to Damian. Damian do his Fred Astaire and then also smash some guys for the encore. Only 1 minute and 14 seconds after that lineout in the Bok half, and the All Black try line is now very close…
11. And now it all go wrong… Ruan decide to pass to the blindside, which is maybe a good decision. There is only two All Black defenders, one of them is falling over, and Schalk and Cornal stand a good chance of maybe making something happen. Unfortunately the All Black 6 (you can see him marked number 3) will cleverly “retreat” and mess up Ruan’s view for a second when he will try to pass. The pass is not good, Cornal try to recover but is bundled into touch.
Ai these boring South Africans hey!
We can see that the Boks approach is to play what is in front of them, and to play as fast as they can. Meyer don’t want continual plodding rucks where Boks has to wait for the right personel to arrive first. You arrive at a ruck, create a shape, and play. Cleaning, support, depth and possible “set calls” is all commonly understood by the Boks in these situations. Forwards and backs will interchange to be targets, carriers, cleaners, supporters and distributors.
Of course there will be slow ball too. Sometimes we want it because we are trying to set up something very specific elsewhere, so we will use slow one-off runners near the ruck to start putting other chess pieces in place. Then the objective isn’t meters, it is about getting men, numbers and shapes correct for a specific purpose.
Sometimes the opposition slow us down and we must somehow get momentum again. There is a lovely saying, “slow ball is slow”. Once the ball is slow from a ruck, it is slow, you might as well take your time now to make sure the next phase can generate some momentum. That is also when we will see a very simple pod or one-off carrier smash it up to try get some front foot ball. It is like starting up a old diesel engine again.
Here is a video of that whole sequence so you can watch it unfold for yourself. Courtesy of Supersport.
Also, if you are interested, here is a article from 2012 where Heyneke chat to Ken Borland about his philosophy.
And a revealing interview with Bok conditioning coach Bazil Carzis last year where he talk about the conditioning demands for this kind of rugby philosophy.
So why the poor results? Love him or hate him, over the last year Meyer have been more interested in process than in results. Or at least, he try to balance both but failed. There is a long list of players he have dropped (Hougaard, JJ, Morne Steyn, Reinach, Juandre, Kirchner, Bekker, etc etc) often in favour of newer, younger talent. Injuries & withdrawals (du Preez, Steyn, Fourie, de Villiers, Vermeulen, Alberts) has also play havoc with his plans. So he has been mixing and matching a lot, and that often cost us.
Anyway, I will just leave you with all of that – it is for you to decide how rigid the Boks is and how unadventurous they are. If you think Heyneke don’t have a game plan… you are right! What you see above is not a game plan, it is headsup rugby drawing on a common system. The players must decide what they want to execute.
It explain why not all players is able to fit in with the decision-making demands and why more experienced players is at a premium. I myself find it exciting and a important evolution away from “top-down” Bok rugby. Even if Meyer must take the heat from us when the players don’t deliver.