Judging by the number of tries scored by the South African teams in SuperRugby last weekend, I’m glad I’m not a defence coach in the South African Conference!
Between them, the Lions (8), Cheetahs (4), Kings (4), Bulls (3), Stormers (3) and Sharks (2) scored 24 tries in some very interesting games of rugby over the weekend, which we have not seen from our teams in SuperRugby for a long time. Newly re-confirmed Springbok coach Allister Coetzee should be delighted.
I believe it is mainly due to the tackle law, stopping players from going high, that we are seeing a lot more offloads in the line, the ball is being kept alive a lot more. There has been a definite improvement in attacking play and I would say it is more a case of the attack improving than the defence deteriorating.
Good weather, good handling and the fact that the players are still fresh has also played a part, and it’s clear the elite players have made a real mindset change when it comes to conditioning and skills.
It was nice to see the Cheetahs put together some really good attacking play in the first half of their match against the Bulls. They were really willing to keep ball in hand and because the Bulls have such a massive pack, every team will try to up the ball-in-play figure against them. The norm is around 35 minutes, but if teams can up that to above 40 minutes then they can test if the Bulls forwards will still be fresh at the end of the game.
It’s interesting, in terms of the Cheetahs attack, that their wings are always on the inside, in the middle of the field. Ryno Benjamin and Raymond Rhule are always threatening the pillars and are not out wide, they have a complete roaming policy.
There’s a perception that the Cheetahs use the full width of the field, but they don’t really. With them, it’s more a case of them playing through you rather than around you and they rarely go into the final 15 metres of the field unless there’s a clear overlap. This also makes it easier for them to support the ball-carrier and they will be less prone to being turned over out wide.
The Cheetahs are also quite inventive.
They’re prepared to chip from their own 22, even by the scrumhalf from the kickoff, so you can see the Cheetahs think outside the box – most people chase restart kicks with their wings, but their primary chasers are their scrumhalf and centre. It means they have a better counter-attacking option with the wings at the back.
Never mind the use of Ryno Benjamin in the lineout!
They also took quick throw-ins because they wanted to keep pace on the ball for the whole game and chase that high ball-in-play figure. The Cheetahs obviously took something out of the Stormers game against the Bulls because they really tried to keep the ball alive and were willing to try and force the offload to avoid rucks.
The Bulls struggled defensively because they were caught a bit narrow a few times and their wings were in two minds whether to go with the line or shadow and push to the touchline, which caused a few problems. I also think the Bulls tried to be over-physical in the sense that they committed too many numbers to the middle rucks at times, sometimes the ball had already gone so counter-rucking was not on.
But the Bulls did score a great try, thanks to a sublime line run by Jason Jenkins off Rudy Paige, to indicate what they can do, as did the way they came back in the second half.
But the Bulls just need to start better, they need cool heads, to have Blue Ice, at the start, when the gainline battle is so important.
The Bulls have also had problems with their lineouts for the last two weeks. The lineout is actually a basic of the game and without possession you cannot get continuity and build pressure with your attack.
But we should remember that they’ve had to start with two away games, although if you have title ambitions, then you’ve got to come through those games and win. They are still quite a young side in certain areas and it will definitely take a bit of time for them to be at their best.
They also have an horrendous draw, with just one game at home in the first seven weeks of the competition. In 2005 we first of all played five away games and then we won all six at home to make the semifinals, and in 2007, when we won SuperRugby for the first time, we also lost our first two games, and in 2016 so did the Hurricanes, so it does not mean the Bulls are out of contention, but champion sides are the most resilient and they come through these sort of challenges.
The Jaguares certainly gave the Stormers a run for their money, but the Cape side are following a high risk, high reward game plan. They are always looking to push the pass and break the line, and they are scoring some lovely tries with off loads and great support.
They are riding their luck at the moment, but the intent is clearly there. They’ve had a mindset shift and now want to be an attacking team, and some days they will fail, but I am pleased to see that thinking.
The Lions have had that mindset for three years now and to score eight tries against the Waratahs, the top Australian side, was very pleasing to everybody in South Africa.
It was also pleasing to see the number of maul tries by the South African teams. Last year the Springboks lost their way a bit in not using the driving maul much, but it is a definite strength of South African rugby. The Lions scored three maul tries and the Cheetahs also scored from the lineout drive.
This was a great weekend for the South African Super franchises and fills us with hope for the Springboks.
John McFarland is the assistant coach of the Kubota Spears in Japan and was the Springbok defence coach from 2012 through to the 2015 World Cup, where they conceded the least line-breaks in the tournament and an average of just one try per game. Before that, McFarland 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.