It was very hard to watch the Springboks v All Blacks game last weekend because there were a mountain of mistakes. You could see the players were really trying, but very often that’s not good enough against a quality side like New Zealand.
There were many system and individual errors within the Springbok defence, but the good news is that they can all be fixed, they can be corrected through good coaching. So I would prefer to talk about solutions rather than showing what went wrong.
Because I was in charge of the Springboks’ defence and kicking game for four years, I obviously know the pressure the coaching staff feel and have experienced this many times myself in my coaching career. You don’t coach for 21 years at a professional level without experiencing setbacks, so you must know how to fix them, plus the players pick up on your body language, passion and intensity.
Since I left the Springboks, I’ve been lucky enough to be working in Japan at the Kubota Spears. The Springboks defence was taken over by Jacques Nienaber, who was obviously being lined up for the full-time job.
He coached the defence in the Ireland Tests as a consultant for five weeks. Chean Roux worked hand-in-hand with him at the MobiUnit and was then earmarked to carry on his structures and principles as seamlessly as possible.
As a coach in this situation, you can’t just point the finger at the players. It’s important to have solutions and you need to look at yourself as well, take responsibility for the performance and fix it. Heyneke Meyer and Frans Ludeke always knew that I would take responsibility for the defensive performance, win or lose.
It’s very easy to point out what went wrong against the All Blacks, but it’s far more important to identify solutions. So here are six simple things that the Springboks can fix.
- The passive defence system. Over a period of time it has come through that line integrity is the key. But at the moment the Springboks are not coming off the line and pressurising the attacking team, or if they are, it’s in single fashion, for example Juan de Jongh trying to cut off the outside options.
Experience has shown that all this does against the All Blacks is pressure our own inside defence. They are very good at running reverse-lines at the shooting defender.
A 75% tackle success rate at Test level shows that this system is not working. Too many good defenders are making errors and missing tackles because we are allowing the attack to dictate to the defence.
On the Sam Whitelock try, it came from width and the spacing of the defensive line was really poor – there were only three defenders covering 30 metres of space, they were far too tight to the ruck, which pulled the wings in.
If you have a passive defence, like the Springboks had, then it highlights if anyone breaks the system. With a passive defence, the whole object is to push the attackers towards the touchline, so it’s never a good idea if everyone is drifting and one player comes in on a read.
- Winning the gain-line. I don’t think the Springbok backline once won the gain-line off first-phase ball, especially off the lineout. We call it ‘winning the race’ – if the defender can hit the ball-carrier behind the gain-line, it’s so much easier to set your defensive pillars in place. But if you allow the opposition to get easy yards over the gain-line as we did at the weekend, then it’s very difficult to get your pillars in place. The attack just rolls forward, gaining momentum … and confidence and belief.
It’s quite simple: You have to close the space from the set-piece a lot quicker. You have to close the space (press) on the first receiver when he has the ball.
- Blindside defence. As alluded to in earlier columns, this was the same part of our defence that was exploited by Australia from the lineout and from a scrum, and was mercilessly exploited by New Zealand on Saturday. The key is that the hooker and blindside wing have to communicate the reversing of play and the players have to look up before folding to the openside. The Springboks’ blindside defence has to be much, much better than it was against the All Blacks.
- Scrumhalf channel off scrum. New Zealand also ran at this channel and since 2014 they’ve been doing the same thing against us. So as a defence coach that would have been my first port of call – making sure that the defence of the scrumhalf channel was really strong in Christchurch.
But Aaron Smith punched through that channel so the scrumhalf and the flank have to work together. The first defender has to adjust and basically they have to play flat after that.
The scrumhalf must defend the ball – after all nobody has ever scored a try without the ball!
- High balls. Every All Blacks high ball went on Francois Hougaard, so that was obviously seen as a mismatch for Israel Dagg to exploit. To be fair, Francois dealt with it well, but the Springboks need to be able to play from the retreating ruck post-kick.
- Kicking game. The kicking game is really quite simple and I believe we over-complicate it to a large degree. The key is that a kick is only as good as its chase, so the work-rate has to be much higher. If the kick is long, then the harder the chase, the easier it is to catch the opposition further back, to separate the counter-attacking wing and fullback from their cleaners/forwards. So the chase has to be a heck of a lot better and more aggressive from the Springboks.
Tactically, the Springboks should be in a strong position because they have right-footed and left-footed options at flyhalf and fullback, because all they have to do then is get into the middle of the field and the right-footer [Johan Goosen] can go on the right side of the ruck and the left-footer [Elton Jantjies] takes the left. That will create indecision in the opposition back three as to who will exit. It will also affect the All Blacks’ pressure plan because the key guys trying to charge down the kick are always Aaron Smith or TJ Perenara and Brodie Retallick – it will be more difficult for them to pick up who is going to kick.
Because the Boks have such a good mauling game, the box-kick from 9 is vitally important and needs to have an organised chase and contest, so they need to select wings that go up in the air.
These are the solutions to the defensive problems which I know I would be asking questions about if I were in the same situation as Chean Roux.
Just on Malcolm Marx and his alleged throwing woes, I think the criticism is incredibly unfair. People just look at the stats and not at what actually went on. It’s easy to say we lost four lineouts and blame the hooker, but if you look through all our games against New Zealand over the last four years, we’ve always lost four or five lineouts against them in the second half, because at halftime, whatever they talk about, they come out differently in the second half.
The World Cup semifinal last year against the All Blacks was decided because we lost five set-pieces around the halfway line. So to come out firing against a young hooker in his first Test is really not fair.
And I’ve looked at his throws – the first one was not straight, that was obvious and an error on his part because his alignment and set-up were wrong. But the two other lost throws were directly because of poor lifts by the back supporter, he was late.
And then at the lineout on the line, the triggers were not right as to when the hooker should throw in. At the top level, the hooker always has a trigger telling him when to throw, it tells him when to begin the throw. It comes from the jumper and it’s important to get it right.
The positive is that in rugby you always get another chance and I really think the Springboks will be so much better at home, they always do play better back here.
I really hope the Springboks and their coaching staff will bounce back well against Australia. I’m sure they will because there is too much hurt and as a group they know their responsibility is to give the country hope. I believe they will do that in these two home Tests.
Allister Coetzee is also a highly-experienced coach who everyone seems to forget won the World Cup in 2007. He’s been in these situations many times and he will know how to get out of it. We just need to give him and the Springboks our backing and support.
John McFarland is the assistant coach of the Kubota Spears in Japan and was the Springbok defence coach from 2012-15, having won three SuperRugby titles (2007, 09, 10) with the Bulls and five Currie Cup crowns with the Blue Bulls. In all, he won 28 trophies during his 12 years at Loftus Versfeld.