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Ken Borland

Five areas the Springboks can improve 0

Posted on September 13, 2021 by Ken

Veteran Duane Vermeulen has been on the sidelines for the last five massive Springbok Tests and as fantastic as their results have been, the eighthman said there are still many areas they can improve on.

“We can always improve. There have been small steps taken through the Georgia game, the SA A matches and the Tests against the British and Irish Lions. We slipped up on the first Test against them, but it’s been nice to see us get some continuity. We want to keep on improving and be consistent. It’s one step at a time but we’re heading in the right direction,” Vermeulen said.

So what are the areas the Springboks still need to work on?

Getting the back three more involved in attack

The Springboks’ five victories so far this year have largely been down to their tight five outmuscling and outworking the opposition. As effective as it has been, forward dominance alone has seldom triumphed in the Southern Hemisphere competition. It would be great to see Cheslin Kolbe, Makazole Mapimpi and Willie le Roux able to exploit space out wide more. They can also be brought into play from clever first-phase plays. Those three are all capable of breaking defensive systems and showing a clean pair of heels.

Increased tempo

One can forgive the Springboks for adopting a wear-them-down strategy against the British and Irish Lions because their lack of high-intensity conditioning after 18 months out of Test rugby made it essential. But they now have a good month of game-time and conditioning work under their belts so the time has come for them to put more speed on the ball. Unlike Argentina, Australia and New Zealand will be actively trying to quicken the game up, so the Springboks will need to be more mobile, with greater continuity between forwards and backs, and maybe even more offloads.

Better discipline

The old benchmark for Springbok teams was to concede fewer than 10 penalties per game. recently they have been in double figures most of the time. It’s not that their discipline has been bad, but under pressure they have tended to err a bit too easily. They can get their penalty count down and that will help with momentum and territory.

More accuracy at restarts

At times the Springboks have looked like a bunch of boisterous pups having a bone thrown to them when it comes to receiving the restarts. The absence of Vermeulen has been felt there and a bit more organisation and clinical execution will help make their exits smoother and relieve territorial pressure.

Improving their strengths even more

In the sage words of Nick Mallett: “It is not up to us to change the way we play because it’s not attractive. You play the way you play best in order to beat the opposition”. And the Springboks’ strengths are their set-pieces and kicking game. Which can still improve!

Lood de Jager and Franco Mostert have been immense at lineout time, but more options can be brought into play there.

Ox Nche, Malcolm Marx and Trevor Nyakane have excelled at scrum-time, but we are still waiting for Steven Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi and Frans Malherbe to really cut loose and destroy opposition scrums.

And the Springboks can improve their box-kicks and kicking into space.

The John McFarland Column: The unsung hero of the Lions’ success 0

Posted on April 25, 2018 by Ken


The Lions’ victory over the Waratahs was a fantastic achievement and one of the best results in the history of our SuperRugby, you have to give credit to the players and the whole coaching staff for pulling off that sort of scoreline in Sydney – and for keeping the New South Welshmen pointless for the first time ever in the competition.

The Lions were really dominant in the scrums and lineouts and they scored some very clever tries. But I would like to single out defence coach Joey Mongalo as their unsung hero.

He took over from JP Ferreira and was under lots of pressure when they started to concede tries in the losses against the Blues, in Argentina and versus the Crusaders, so it is a real credit to him that they have tightened up so much since then. Swys de Bruin took a big punt in appointing his son, Neil, as the skills coach and then he took Joey out of the junior team, where he had been tremendously successful.

It’s a big step up for Mongalo but he can now enjoy the history made in Sydney. He has persevered through the ups and downs and been at the Lions for seven years and was promoted to the Currie Cup last year. He was also the SA U20 defence coach under Dawie Theron and in their last year they finished fourth at the junior world cup. Saru, in their infinite wisdom, decided not to make use of him last year, but he is a quality young coach.

The difference he has made to the Lions’ defence is that they now have great spacing, alignment and width, they really cover the width of the field. They are also very strong in the collisions, guys like Franco Mostert, Harold Vorster and Malcolm Marx really monster guys. They have a great double-hit system which means the ball-carrier can’t get the offload away.

They’ve also shown greater line-speed these last two weeks, they’re coming forward and really laying down the gauntlet to the opposition. With that they can force turnovers through Kwagga Smith and Marx, who is probably the best in the world right now at forcing turnovers. He gets over the ball so often and he is really hard to shift.

The fact that he comes off the lineout and is inside the ball a lot of the time allows him to be very effective at turnovers. The hooker role has changed over the last few years because of the nature of how teams contest for possession and one of the best at stealing ball I ever worked with was Bismarck du Plessis. The hooker nowadays basically defends the inside channel, which enables him to be close to his target.

The other impressive feature of the Lions’ play against the Waratahs was the quality of their kicking game and their lack of fear in doing it anywhere on the field. Elton Jantjies was even prepared to put in a crossfield kick off turnover ball five metres from the goal-line. There was also a great little chip from scrumhalf Dillon Smit in the middle of the field that bounced into Ruan Combrinck’s hands and Kwagga scored.

They have the courage to do it when it’s not expected and they execute those kicks so well. The Lions also have very good chasing wings.

Swys de Bruin obviously gives them the confidence to try anything anywhere on the field and you can never accuse him of taking the safe option. He’s also had his ups and downs as a coach – he spent a long time at the Sharks Academy before Johan Ackermann brought him back into the coaching fold. He brings confidence and a sense of adventure to Lions rugby.

One must also give credit to forwards coach Philip Lemmer. Those two tries from drives off the lineout were really well executed and the way they shifted and created a channel for Marnus Schoeman, ripping a wide open gap for him to go through, was very clever.

So it was almost the perfect performance away from home by the Lions, I expect them to back it up by beating the Reds this weekend, and it is a smart move by Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus to add Swys to the consulting team for the England series. Does it mean the Springboks will play with that same freedom as the Lions do?

Well Rassie is naturally quite a conservative coach so it will be interesting to see if Swys will free up the backs.

Elton Jantjies is now the most capped Lions player ever, having gone past Cobus Grobbelaar’s 94 appearances earlier this season, and he is hardly ever injured, so he is tremendously resilient and looks after his body well. The Lions’ style of play is tailor-made to his strengths and it was encouraging to see him dictate matters in an away game, having shown previously he’s obviously very good at altitude. A lot of it comes down to the backing Swys de Bruin gives him and the question is whether he will now get the same with the Springboks.

I thought the Bulls were good value for their win over the Rebels. Sometimes you have to win ugly but to bank the five points despite that was excellent and coach John Mitchell won’t mind doing that every week.

Adriaan Strauss is certainly in brilliant form, last year’s break did him good and he has dropped some weight. In fact, I have worked with Atta since the U21s and this is the fittest I have ever seen him. He has always been a world-class player, but in the environment Mitchell has created at Loftus Versfeld, he is really performing. Having him there really adds accuracy to the set-pieces and he almost always hits his jumpers with his dead-eye-dick throws.

That brings RG Snyman and Lood de Jager into play and that forms the axis of the Bulls side with flyhalf Handre Pollard.

Under the new regime, Lood is also fitter and more mobile and the offloads and supporting lines of the Bulls forwards are very good, they look to keep the ball alive in space. Their scrum also functioned quite well against the Rebels and they created a great angle on the crucial try scored by Divan Rossouw just before halftime. They took a whole lot of Rebels defenders out of the game, they could not get across in time and the visitors basically ran out of tacklers.

Pollard is also providing direction with the boot and is enjoying a good string of matches, plus you have the magic and game-breaking ability of Jesse Kriel and Warrick Gelant, who has such incredible feet, he could get his way out of a phone box full of tacklers!

In fact there are now a lot of players with good feet on display in South African rugby, there’s that stepping ability. New Zealand’s guys tend to rely on their size, but we’re starting to produce it on the wings, guys who are really quick with good feet and are good in the air, which is going to be crucial in the Rugby Championship and against England.

The Rebels’ tactics are well-known on the Highveld, trying to slow down or stop the game, which gives their forwards longer time to recover. Visiting teams to Pretoria either stack their bench with forwards in a 6/2 split, so for the last 20 minutes they almost have a fresh pack on, or they slow the game down, sit down often and make the whole pace slower.

But hopefully the Bulls will also be able to turn over the Highlanders on the Highveld this weekend.

The Sharks versus Stormers game was obviously between two teams desperate for a win and the loss puts real heaps of pressure now on the Stormers. They’ll have to win with bonus points in their next five games in the Cape, which is possible. But for the Stormers to win with bonus points they need to be far more defensively secure than they have been.

But I look forward to watching the games in my 11th floor Tokyo flat, which overlooks the Springbok training facility for next year’s World Cup. I hope I am still here next year to look out my window and watch them train!


Urayasu City World Cup training facility - where the Springboks will be based while in Tokyo

Urayasu City World Cup training facility – where the Springboks will be based while in Tokyo



John McFarland won three SuperRugby titles (2007, 09, 10) with the Bulls and five Currie Cup crowns with the Blue Bulls as their defence coach. In all, he won 28 trophies during his 12 years at Loftus Versfeld.

He is currently 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.


The John McFarland Column: Looking back at the fantastic Newlands Test 0

Posted on October 13, 2017 by Ken


What a fantastic game of rugby it was at Newlands, with the incredible atmosphere, the pace, intensity and physicality making it real Test match rugby.

Unfortunately the Springboks lost, but they gave a huge performance and the All Blacks will know they were lucky to win. It was so pleasing to see the Springboks go from 57-0 to losing by just a point, but they should have won.

Of course the game could have been different had Nehe Milner-Skudder’s break been finished off or Rieko Ioane had not been tackled over the goal-line by Jesse Kriel, those 14 points could have deflated the Springboks. But it was also the home side’s own mistakes that gave the All Blacks the points they needed.

Even the last-minute controversy was avoidable because it’s always a risk rushing for the charge down; you need to come at an angle so you don’t hit the kicker head-on. It’s to protect the kicker and Damian was too square-on. He did manage to put Lima Sopoaga off his drop kick, but he also would have known he was late and risked sanction, and conceded the penalty anyway. It wasn’t the best moment in Damian de Allende’s rugby life and it changed the complexion of the game because the All Blacks were then two scores clear and with just 14 men on the field, it was an uphill task for the Springboks.

The breakdown turnovers were the key and you could see the reaction of the team after Malcolm Marx and Francois Louw stole the ball. The mix of the back row Allister Coetzee chose came in for a lot of criticism but it was done for a reason.

Siya Kolisi and Francois Louw were the two breakdown players, which you need to disrupt the All Blacks’ attacking pattern, and Pieter-Steph du Toit provided physicality and bolstered the lineout.

In terms of the Springbok kicking game, they kicked a bit more than previously, although I find it strange that the crowd boos our own scrumhalf for kicking box-kicks, while the New Zealand scrumhalf is applauded for doing it. The plan was clearly to have contestable kicks to test the All Blacks back three. In the last World Cup semi-final, Milner-Skudder dropped a few high balls and was eventually moved away from the wing, so that was clearly part of the Springboks’ plan at Newlands.

You can’t just run willy-nilly from your own half, sometimes you’ve got to kick. It must either be long into the 22, which gives you time to build a chase line or force the catcher to kick out and give you a lineout; or he will kick long which gives you the chance to put the running bomb up; or it must be contestable. If you’re accurate enough then you have a 50/50 chance of winning the ball back, or you can put in a dominant tackle, get a turnover or just slow their ball down.

That did not happen in Ross Cronje’s box-kick that led to Damian McKenzie’s spectacular try, but to be fair, David Havili was allowed too much space and time to run across the field. The Springboks have struggled with guys running across their defensive line, it raises doubts as to whether the outside defender should turn in or trust the player on the inside. It’s something the Springboks have got to tighten up.

What was probably most pleasing of all – and credit must go to their conditioning for this – was that the Springboks were much stronger at the end of the game, both physically and mentally. Playing at sea level, as predicted, was also important because it makes it a level playing field.

The performance of the pack was magnificent, they were bristling on the gain-line, they won the collisions and they really gained confidence from the lineout. The Springboks went for four-man lineouts and then the short ball, which ensured they were able to win quality possession. The maul try they scored was also really pleasing.

The forwards seem to be in that special zone right now where they are full of confidence and intensity and they are really playing for each other.

We should also not underestimate Francois Louw’s calmness and experience and just his assurance, which definitely has an impact on his fellow forwards on and off the field.

Elton Jantjies’ kick at goal that he didn’t put over was also important and at international level you’ve got to convert those chances.

The main problem with the backline was that they were a little too deep and too lateral. Everyone wishes they can have a flat attack, because that’s what causes the defence the most problems, and it was better when Handre Pollard came on. Then again, there has to be quick ruck ball for the number 10 to take the ball into the jaws of the defence.

Ironically, the shorter lineouts do actually cause a problem for the backs because then there’s not much chance for them to have a one-on one. It’s good that Allister Coetzee is backing combinations because that induces trust, but he needs to be aware if, over a period of time, players aren’t really performing.

With the backs being a bit too lateral and too deep at Newlands, it allowed the All Blacks to pick off the carriers in the backline. It was interesting when Pollard came on that he played much flatter to the gain-line, which brought his forwards more into play, for example when Malcolm Marx hit the hole and set up the try for Jean-Luc du Preez.

For the end-of-year tour it will obviously be different conditions to South Africa, especially compared to on the highveld.

Both the matches against Ireland and Wales will be played in stadia with roofs, which makes a difference. Hopefully the Springboks have now found the formula that works for them.



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.




In praise of the Lions: The John McFarland Column 0

Posted on May 17, 2017 by Ken


What a fantastic achievement by the Lions to win all three of their SuperRugby games overseas, for any rugby team to do that is an unbelievable effort and they continue to do really well in terms of the competition standings.

I think this is the first time a South African team have been unbeaten on their overseas tour and the bonus points they gained, to score the tries they did and to defend so securely was superb, and credit must go to the coaching staff as a whole.

Not that long ago, it was virtually impossible for a South African team to win against the Brumbies in Canberra and that could be the result that gives the Lions a great shout of hosting a home final. They can now top the log and go all the way, playing New Zealand sides at 3pm on the Highveld in the knockouts.

It was certainly a memorable moment when they managed to steal the ball for a turnover and what pace Kwagga Smith showed to finish!

For those criticising the way the Lions have been playing, you never play your best away from home, you just have to make sure you win. And you can’t be at your best every week in SuperRugby, it’s impossible, and it’s important to win when you’re playing badly.

This weekend the Lions will look forward to hosting a Bulls team low on confidence and belief at Ellis Park.

The Bulls were certainly better last weekend against the Highlanders. Although the conditions were a great leveller, they showed fight and character and it was a good turnaround which showed what they can achieve when they put their minds to it. There was also a huge improvement in their defence.

The Bulls have so many good players and they will see a chance to play against the Lions as a great opportunity; there is always a bit more passion and intensity in the local derbies. It is a very young Bulls side though, and they will need to match the Lions in the set-pieces. Obviously the scrums are crucial because the Lions will certainly attack them there, and the Bulls will also need to stop the lineout drive. Then they need to deal with the Lions’ game-breaking backs, although the Bulls also have a dangerous backline.

I fully expect the Stormers to beat the Blues back in Cape Town after their rest. The start will be key for the Stormers because they don’t have so much confidence now, but if they can get back to how they were playing before going overseas, then there’s no reason why they can’t beat the Blues. Their biggest challenge is going to be that they have to defend a lot better.

You’ve also got to take your hats off to the Southern Kings, who have no budget but are certainly playing with high confidence at the moment, and it was a really good performance to beat the Sharks with four tries to two. It was encouraging to see they’ve got the reward of four guys being named in the last Springbok training squad.

But the only South African team that has really performed to their potential has been the Lions, so you would think they will form the bulk of the final Springbok squad to be announced next week. The Sharks have recently lost to the Kings and drawn with the Rebels, the Stormers have lost four successive matches and the Bulls and Cheetahs are also on big losing streaks, so there is not a lot of confidence amongst the other players in South Africa.

But we’ve been like this before – in 2015 we struggled in SuperRugby but ended up losing by just two points to the All Blacks in the World Cup semi-final. The players get excited about being in a different environment and representing their country.

The Stormers locks are world-class and proven Test players need to play, plus there are special considerations around making the squad representative, so there are a lot of variables, one can’t just choose all the Lions players.

The positive, though, is that two of the Tests against France will be played on the Highveld, so it’s an opportunity to pick more Gauteng players who are used to the conditions and the quick tempo of play.

France will bring a gigantic pack and big midfield backs, they certainly like to play ball-in-hand and they have an offload game centred around Louis Picamoles. So Allister Coetzee needs to pick the right combinations to stop that, which is always the challenge in selection – it’s like putting together a fine potjie, making sure the blend is right is most important and you’re always going to use some tried and tested frontline Test players.

It will be interesting to see who Coetzee picks from overseas, some of them have had a very long, hard, arduous season in the French playoffs or the English Premiership. You need continuity and if guys are based overseas it makes it difficult because you have so little time together as a team anyway. For me, I would only use guys who qualify to play after the 30-caps criterion comes into force after July 1.

As far as Jan Serfontein goes, if there’s an emergency then obviously Allister will use him, and the Springboks definitely need size and experience in midfield.

With all the injuries, it looks like Elton Jantjies will get an extended run at flyhalf, and it will be a make-or-break series for him.



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.

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