BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 10:  Springboks player Tendai Mtawarira takes on the defence during the Rugby Championship match between the Australian Wallabies and the South Africa Springboks at Suncorp Stadium on September 10, 2016 in Brisbane, Australia.  (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)
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Hi guys, the Bok attack is not firing so lekker. But it is one thing to say it is not working, and another thing to say it is not working properly. Because if we know the goal of the coaches, and the system they trying to play, it is easier to make a comment on what is going on.

Of course that is the problem! We do not always know what a coach is trying to do on attack, because in the crazy rush of rugby it can be hard to see what patterns he is using. For instance with the Boks on Saturday against Australia, they did not always get enough phases going for us to see clearly what attack patterns emerge. And many times we get the ball from turn-over or mistake, where attack structure is not in place yet.

STELLENBOSCH, SOUTH AFRICA - MAY 31: Allister Coetzee (Head Coach) during the Springbok Field training session and Media interview at Stellenbosch Academy of Sport on May 31, 2016 in Stellenbosch, South Africa. (Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images)

(Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images)

So I just wanted to write some quick words about the Bok attack, and some interesting relationship between:

  1. The personel on the field
  2. The attack formation
  3. The way the players play

Before I start, let us first go through what we mean when we say a attack formation.

Basically it come down to how we use our forwards on attack.

The way backs lines up on the field is one thing –  they can have moves and loops and switches and all that, but those poor guys is lost without support from the forwards, to clean, to run support lines, etc.

So on attack we can think of the forwards as the foundation, and the backs is the house we build on that foundation.

And these days we also use forwards in the line! So they are also a actual part of the attack. They can make big direct carries to help create space, they run decoys for us, they can stand in pods to give our flyhalf options. Etc. And in the same breathe the backs these days must also clean! We can use our senters to secure rucks, and so on. There many different philosophies.

But in a basic nutshell when we talk about Attack Formation, it come down to where we put the forwards on the field when we attack. Who must stand where, and what is their role? What kind of foundation do we want to give the backs. We only have 8 of these buggers so we must use them wisely!


In the old days it was easy because the forwards just all have to stick together. They must just rumble around in a group. There was a saying, “You must be able to throw one blanket over all the forwards”. Of course that is not necessary applicable anymore, but it is a starting point for the conversation. Because at times in a game you actually DO want your forwards closer together. For a instance if you are continually attacking in channel 1 with big carries, and you have your forwards “coming around the corner” of every ruck.

The Boks do this against Wales in the World Cup quarter final as response to the Wales moerse rush defence. The Boks said, “Ok, you want to hit our backs behind the advantage line? Then we will bring the battle inside and smash you closer on that gainline.” This is a tactic that maybe the Lions could have try when they was face with the Hurricanes rush defence, but they did not necessary have the powerful personel to do it, and was not necessary set up to play in that way (see how there is a link between players, pattern, and playing style?)

Anyway I go away on a train of thought.

So a traditional way of playing, and a way of playing when you are in trouble, is to use your forwards more in the middle of the field, and in a narrower way. As below. We consider them as one group, and they will go to where the ball is.


Now I think it is clear what the advantages and drawbacks is. The up-side is that our forwards is a like a fist with 8 fingers. We can play a power game because our beef is in a closer area together. The downside is that it make our whole game narrower… We will not easily go wide early because the backs is worried they will get isolate. It is in this type of system when we hear the saying “You must earn the right to go wide”. If the forwards have manage to carry powerfully and suck in defenders in the close channels, hopefully space and number mis-matches starts to appear in the outside channels.

It is important to make a note that this way of using forwards is not necessary boring!

We can still create exciting backline shapes, and run decoys and moves, but we are maybe limited to playing only as far as the middle channel on one phase. Can’t go too wide too early. Our house is build on where the forwards is grouped. Many teams play this way and it is fine. I will say it again, it is not necessary boring or konserwatief!

I will call the above formation a 0-8-0 formation. (This is a joke that coaches will understand). But you can see there is zero forwards standing in the outside channels. All 8 guys is grouped together. So 0-8-0.

Now maybe we want to mix things a bit, so we can start to use our forwards different. The next formation we can consider is called a 4-4 formation. We split the forwards in two groups and they will generally try to stick in this groups during attacking phase play.


It is logical that this give us bit more flexibility. It is a bit more compromise of being able to play narrow and maybe go wide. But it can create problems if one group of forwards end up in wider channels, and other group don’t use common sense and move closer to them on the inside. The two groups must stay connect and share personel, and the 9 must be careful where he direct play.

It is also important to make a note that we have split the tight forwards and the loose forwards (and hooker). So if you look, each group have little bit of speed as well as power to use.

Now if we want to get bit more adventurous we can use the 1-3-3-1 formation. Now things starts to get interesting… Because for the first time we have actually place a forward right on the outside of the field, on each side. This is the way Aussies plays at the moment.


Notice that the outside forwards must have pace. They will be there in support of the backs for when you go wide. The inside groups of forwards can be use as pods, decoys, carriers, options, etc and be part of the shape and the attack of the back line.

We have all seen the classical shape where the 9 pass the ball from a ruck and he can give it to a 3-man pod or to his flyhalf. The beauty of this is that the pod commit the inside defence, but even if the 9 do give it to the pod (he will usually hit the middle man) there still many options… The ball can be play back to the 9 on a loop. Or the first receiver in the pod can tip-pass to guy next to him in the pod as he is tackled. Or a pass is made from the pod to a back. Or the man just carry the ball up himself with his two friends in support to create quickball. We also see many times this same 3-man pod but it is a option off 10, with the same multiple options existing.

Please remember: we do all this sexy things in the 0-8-0 formation too! We can do it in any formation. The only difference is how soon we can go wide.

And then of course we have the most “wide” formation of all , the 2-4-2. As we can see we have now 2 forwards in each outside channel and only 4 forwards operating in the middle. This is the way New Zealand teams like Crusaders likes to play. They want to stretch you from touchline to touchline (called wide-wide plays) and they want the support there from the forwards when they does it.


This can be a moer of a exciting way to play. You sacrifice bit of the power game, but it mean you can go wide early, and you can use wide plays to test the opposition and create lekker conditions for yourself. In narrower formations like 0-8-0, wide plays is something that is a reward for work you did earlier. In more wide formations like 1-3-3-1 and 2-4-2, going wide is part of the process of creating opportunities.

Because one big advantage of this wider system is that the players out in the tramline forces the defence to keep its width. Usually defence must mirror what they see on attack. By keeping players in the wide channel on attack we forcing defence to make a decision. Do they spread more on defence? Do they just try to kill your ball inside to stop your wide plays? Do they try rush you in the middle? And individually we start to see tired players faced with decisions – does he stay, does he fold to other side of ruck? The play move fast across the field.

Personally I like the idea to show width on attack somewhere because it create doubt in the defence and you now starting to manipulate what they do.

Yes there is drawbacks to 2-4-2. You must have fast and fit forwards to play this way. And because you have spread the forwards more thin over the field, and they generally tends to be more about speed than power, it is possible that you can not get over the advantage line.

In this kind of game you are like Muhammed Ali, because you play fast but you can still be knock out by a George Foreman… But of course if you are Ali you can move the slower George  around and find the gaps to finish him :)


The “holy” grail of this system is to have fast guys who is also powerful and clever, because they can play wide, but they also make good decisions, and they can come inside and fight in the trench of channel 1 to get go-forward ball when it is necessary. But this system is simply not for everybody, you must first have players who can do it.

So like any rugby system each have its own ups and downs, and it also depend on how coaches uses this systems. I want to make clear again, it is not necessary a case of being more or less conservative. It can be, but to me it is more a case of which channels you can attack with less risk, and how early you can go wide.

Ok, so how does the Boks play?

This is the strange thing. When I do a map of where the Bok forwards operate, it seem clear to me they operating in a 0-8-0 system. The forwards seems grouped more in the middle of the field, supporting where it is necesary, but with no forwards standing in width at all. It is possible that Boks was playing 1-3-3-1 and that the outside forwards just came inside a lot. And like I say it was very hard to detect a pattern because Boks hardly ever get phases going. But there was never any width in the forwards, so I honestly think the Bok approach was to be narrower.

Quick example below. Boks had a lineout on the left side of the field, and then make this lovely wide strike down the right of the field.  Our 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 is all in the same area, and that is Warren’s arm sticking in the right. So no forward stay behind on the left side after the lineout to create width on attack on the next phase. Safe to say Boks not playing a 1-3-3-1 I don’t think.


Around 70 minutes when Bongi came on the Boks did seem to go to 1-3-3-1. We can see this because Bongi go to stand right in the outside channel. That is why he had a “better game” than Adriaan. The change in the system place him where there is space, and so he carry nicely which the public likes.

But what I am trying to find out for myself is what is the intention of the Boks in this narrow way they play. We have quite mobile forwards, so you think we will play a 1-3-3-1 (which will suit us). But it seem we are using them in the middle?

If that is the case should Allister not pick forwards who can play a more power game? Like I say, there is nothing wrong to play this way. In fact, if we had play more physical against the Aussies we will maybe have beat them. We will have keep the ball for longer periods, build pressure, shorten their line, and then suddenly the public see our backs is “amazing” players again because they have bit more space and time.


So we have a interesting conflict between the Bok personel on the field, their attack system (use of forwards), and the way they played. Because even though the Boks did not really threaten with wide plays, they also did not play a classical narrow game. And sometimes we see no forwards in support out wide, which also confuse me. Sometimes guys doesn’t seem to get involved at the breakdown even when it happen close to them. Almost like they say “I must get back to my area, this is not my area on attack”. I don’t know.

Our friend @Mud_n_Guts on twitter make a good observation about the moment below when Bryan decide to pick and go from a ruck. It is possible that Boks was setting up to go wide to the left, so when Bryan take initiative and shoot up the middle it mess up what the structure was. We can see Kitshoff and Mostert continue over to the left, as the system require.

(Personally I am of the school that say players must take this opportunities and it is up to his teammates to be aware, to adapt, and to support)

It is possible that Allister want to play with slightly narrower forwards, but then strike from channel to channel with forwards and backs. Advantage of this is that if you can play quickly from ruck to ruck you stress the defence and they run out of guys, and you get mis-matches and mistakes.

This is similar to what the Lions does – they all about quick ball. And it is interesting the Lions is not a “wide” team as people think… They don’t go wide on 1st phase or 2nd phase. They like to attack the close and middle channels off Elton. They stressing you fast from ruck to ruck. But the Lions DOES very often go to a 1-3-3-1 formation which is why we see guys like Warren so often in support down the touchline.

I am not clever enough to know how the Boks wants to play – it seem they setup to be tighter, but then they don’t always play like that, and they don’t necessary have the guys to play tighter.

But I hope you start to see this relationship between how you want to play, who do you choose, and then how they actually play. It must all be in a “synergy”.

Anyway it is all interesting. I will appreciate your input into this, and what you think and what you have notice about the Bok system. Leave a message below so we can have a conversation and learn from each other!

Cheers guys.

*Our twitter friend @Mud_n_Guts also make the point that the Boks is possibly implementing a 1-6-1 shape. So a narrower focus, but with some width brought in. It is possibly part of Allister approach to use the traditional Bok strengths but to start adding some width on attack. Not every S.A. player is use to it, and it take time for guys to get out of their provincial or club patterns, so that is why maybe why we seeing some “teething” issues.


  • Ron Zo

    GREAT PIECE! If AC goes full-Lions and use that 1-3-3-1 formation regularly, does it hold that Kriel and Whiteley need to be on the pitch as they are probably the most dangerous forwards in wide-areas the Bokke have? Speaking of the Lions, Rohan is such a glaring omission – I hope he gets selected for the European tour. What implications does his selection (over Juan or Damian) have on what formations the Bokke ought to play?

    • Oom

      Ja you right. If we want to go proper 1-3-3-1 then we must have some pace on the outside. usually our 7 & 6.
      Can also be a hooker. So if AC want to commit to it then he must just find mix of who he choose… and who go where.
      Great question about senters. I think we must write another article sometime about that! It is a book in it-self.

  • Spencer Weyers

    Great article. In my opinion i do believe we have the players in the country to play a more wider game. However to do this we need the buy in of all the provinces so everyone understands the type of game. This is what the AB’s do with all their franchises. I feel this is why we look so unsure of our style of play as we have a couple of guys used to the old way of Springbok play and a couple of Lions guys trying to play the way they do. Remember it took the Lions a season or two before they started getting results. Until all the provinces are on the same page we need to stick to our narrow style of play, especially in the first 50/60 minutes. We could make use of a lot of the Lions players off the bench when the game opens a bit and make a big impact. We will always have the big strong players to play the narrower game and fortunately/unfortunately this how most of them know how to play. So for now stick to this so that we don’t get klapped by 30 points the weekend. We might not win every game but we will give ourselves a chance as the very least. Just on a side note i believe Allister needs to surround himself with better support coaches, or at least guys with more experience at the highest level. Especially with regard to defence and tactics.

    • Raymond Schoonraad

      Thank you Oom. Very educational. What bothers me is that in all the interviews with AC in the last week, he never once mentioned that they are working on their attack, finishing or clearing the rucks. It’s all about working on their discipline, set piece scrum, lineouts and maybe a bit on their defence. I wonder if they even have an attack plan. They are going win the ball in set pieces and then just kick it away or lose it in the loose and then just defend defend defend. Feeling very proud that the boys fought hard and didn’t concede too many penalties. It’s going to be very painful to watch.

      • Oom

        ja Ray to be honest it is tough hey. Coach have so little time with players, what do he focus on? lineouts? lineout defence? scrums? defence? attack? breakdown? conditioning? skills? recovery? kick chase? play off 9? play off 10? scramble defence? kick off? kick off receipt? exits? there is a million things that needs attention!

    • Oom

      good points. and yes Allister need better technical assistence

  • conii

    I think with the type of centres we have at our disposal and the 9 and 10 we could easily play a more wide attacking-like game. The reason is guys like damian and Jesse are both quick and relatively strong, they can easily clean out or steal a ball if the oppertunity arises, and we have all seen bryan steal a couple as well. With Whiteley and jaco being as quick and creative they can link on the outside, then theres guys like Peter-Steph who is really strong and quick who can be deadly if he is being used off third or fourth phase when the defense is starting to get disorganised.. but that is something that needs to be built on franchise level,, the Springboks will never be able to play an attacking game or a more “conservative” game if all the franchises play very different styles. Because there is no structure and barely a majority representative of any franchise n the squad. So theres no continuity being carried over from franchise level and everyone in the team seems confused as to what they should do due to playing different styles all season long. Perfect example 9,10,12and 13. The De Klerk, Jantjies, De Allende and Mapoe combination.. 9 and 10 play close to the forwards to get quick phase ball to confuse and send wide while de allende has a more run from deep approach with the Stormers game plan,, that automatically makes Mapoe look like a clown because he plays the same game as 9 and 10 but de allende disrupts the whole running line and defensive organisation.. different game plans. Most of the “succesfull” Springbok teams and seasons came from when the bulk of the Springboks was represented by 3 or less franchises with the odd one or 2 players from other franchises,, for example the 2007 squad was mostly Bulls and Sharks combinations, the players knew each other and had synergy.. Just to conclude, central contracting and national coach having a say over what types of games the franchises must play is the route to success of any Rugby nation.
    By the way that was a great article

    • Ron Zo

      I still have hope that DDA can look like the star he was in 2015, but I agree it seems like he is the one who serves to block the current between the halfbacks and Mapoe…It is too bad the Lions don’t have a great 12…OH WAIT!

      • Oom

        haha Ron :)

    • Oom

      great example of team getting to know eachother with dis-connect between Elton’s alignment and De jongh/Allended outside him. value in playing combos from same franchises, but also value in trying to get best guys on the park together

  • Neville Bru

    Great article, learnt a hell of a lot. Synergy is probably the one thing the boks really don’t have and I believe they need to sort out if they are going to step it up to the next level.

    Hopefully we can see a clear pattern this weekend eventhough I don’t think we will win. But something solid to give us hope for the future!!

    Go Bokke!

    • Oom

      ja too much up in the air for Boks to win I think

  • Waldo Booysen

    Very intuitive. Mixed game plan, with the wrong personnel probably. If you want to do 1-3-3-1 the you need more speed in the flanks and a big inside centre for advantage line dominance. You cant really get away with slow forwards, unless on a wet field. NZ had Nonu which helped as well as a mobile back 5 that had more speed than the average team they competed against without sacrificing size and height so their tight phases never suffered. The last truly mobile nr. 7 we had was Juan Smith, Burger is slower and Louw and Vermeulen arent. racehorses What would you suggest? Moving to the 1-3-3-1 no with the mobile pack? As both our locks are quicker than most? Also having a more committed hooker would help, as we played with 6 forwards on Saturday, Adriaanse doesnt do much except scrum? Thas the same issue we had when Smit and Jannie dplessis were playing together. Also isnt 1-3-3-1 more suited for strike runners in the backline? As they do as much carrying as the forwards in this formation? with the 0-8-0 you suggest the slow poison method, which allows more nimble centres as the forwards do most of the running.

    • Oom

      brilliant thank you Waldo. you paint us a fantastic picture of the relationship between the senters and how the forwards operates, and who the forwards are.