“At the end of the Rugby Championship last year, we came out with the best stats, in terms of retention and turnovers, but the breakdown is becoming more of a war every year.
“Every country we go to, the newspapers are always talking about the ‘battle of the breakdown’ and this year it will be even more so. Australia have really taken a step forward there judging by SuperRugby, but every team emphasises the breakdown. If something happens 140 times in a game then it’s got to be important and we have to dominate and be accurate there,” Gray said on Wednesday.
While Francois Louw will obviously figure extensively when it comes to the Springboks’ efforts to steal ball, protecting one’s own possession on attack is just as important. Because an openside flank can only hit every second or third ruck, the breakdown does become truly a team effort.
“Every player has to be equipped to do breakdown work and I work with both the individual and collectively to make sure we get it spot on every time in training.
“Just like the greatest defensive system won’t work if your players can’t tackle, so your attack will always be running against a brick wall if you’re taking four or five seconds to get the ball out of the breakdown.”
The Springboks, with their tall, bulky physiques, have had a reputation for being one-dimensional at the rucks – just running up and ramming a shoulder in to try and bully opposition off the ball. But Gray has certainly up-skilled them in this department.
“I can remember being told by leading Northern Hemisphere coaches like Jim Telfer that you never take on the Springboks at waist-height because they’ll smash you, but at knee-height because they’re big men who can’t bend down. But that’s an absolute myth, if they’re properly coached then South Africa have some phenomenal players at the breakdown. They have a great mentality and physicality, and we just need to add accuracy,” the Scotsman said.
One of Gray’s challenges at the moment is to sort out the mash of different breakdown strategies his players have returned with from all around the world – never mind the five SuperRugby franchises employing different methods, there are also the tactics of three different French clubs, two English and one from Northern Ireland to contend with.
“The players disappear all over the world and their clubs all have different philosophies when it comes to the breakdown. So we have to get to what is best for the Springboks; quick ball is best, but how do we get that?
“So I’ll implement a plan that is correct for this group and their different strengths and weaknesses. I’ll tweak it week-by-week and month-by-month and we don’t want to follow other teams, we want to lead, so we do a lot of analysis to spot weaknesses in both ourselves and others,” Gray explained.
At least in the Rugby Championship, the breakdown is a far cleaner, better-policed phase of play; in the Northern Hemisphere, there are people clogging the aisles far too often.
“I was delighted with the way we changed our approach on the Northern Hemisphere tour last year. The breakdown is an absolute war over there, there are bodies all over the place, players rolling out on our side. There are just so many things going on and it was a huge step-up to cope with that.”
The Springboks’ first task will be to tame the Pumas and their tactics of tackling low to mow down the ball-carrier and then flooding the breakdown.
Michael Hooper and Richie McCaw will then be lying in wait.