Matt is the Editor of Green and Gold Rugby.com
It’s undeniable, 2009 was the year of the Saffas; Super 14, Tri-Nations and the Lions. What’s also undeniable was the extreme game-plan that the Springboks employed along the way; a game-plan that exploited a unique set of new IRB laws through their talents – both established and emerging. What has this meant for rugby, and more importantly, how do you beat it in 2010?
When watching the Springboks this year you had a good impression at how differently they were playing the game, but it’s only when you look at the resultant stats reports from the IRB that you see just how stark and extreme their strategies were.
The Saffa game plan
In the first, high pressure test against the Lions (which South Africa won 26-21), the Boks held possession for a total of just 11 mins 59 seconds (the Lions for 19mins 50secs). In the previous 5 years of both Tri-Nations and 6 Nations competitions, only once did a team hold on to the ball less, and it was when South Africa lost to Australia 49-0 in 2006. The tier 1 international average is around 19 minutes of possession, or 60% more than the Boks in this Lions test.
Such a deliberate ceding of possession was reflected in the kicking and passing stats. South Africa passed the ball a total of 49 times in the whole match, their entire back-line only 16 times. In contrast, the Lions scrum half alone passed the ball 75 times and the team 195 times. South Africa, despite the lack of possession, still managed to kick the ball 36 times, 30% more than the Lions. The Boks therefore averaged 1.4 passes per kick – an “unheard of ratio” – versus 5.7 passes per kick for the Lions.
As the Lions series progressed, South Africa eased up on this strategy, most notably in the final test (which they lost) when the series was won and they had made 10 changes to their starting line-up. Come the Tri-Nations though, and they were back to type. The Boks averaged 85 passes per game across the Tri-Nations, as compared with 125 (50% more) for both Australia and New Zealand. They also on average made 40% more kicks than their competitors per minute of possession.
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But when it came to the crunch, in the Tri-Nations decider vs New Zealand which the Boks won 32-29 in Hamilton, they set a new low-passing floor, making just 43. In this game, the the All Black scrum-half made 30% more passes than the entire Bok team. The South Africa centres touched the ball 8 times and made a total of 2 passes, while the New Zealand centres touched the ball on 43 occasions and passed the ball 21 times.
Throughout the season an organised kicking game, superb line-out, largely solid scrum and long restarts all served to help keep the pressure on the opposition, as the Saffas chose where (your half) and when (rarely) they wanted the ball.
A new scoring paradigm
In 2009 this was the recipe for success. Overall there were 38% (27 vs 43) fewer tries scored in 2009 than 2008, and the lowest rate per game for 9 years. In the Tri-Nations only 1 try was scored from a kick return (vs 7 in 2008, 5 in 2007 and 7 in 2006), and 19% started further out than 40 metres from the goal-line, compared with 33% in 2008, 53% in 2007 and 50% in 2006. In other words – booting the ball deep was safe as houses.
At the same time the number of penalty goals kicked per game rose from 3.7 in 2008 to 7.7 in 2009, the highest rate ever in Super Rugby. This meant that more than 50% of a teams points were now coming from penalties. Of those penalties, 50% happened at the ruck/on the ground and unlike in 2008 these were now all full arm penalties.
Crucially, the advantage at the breakdown had also tipped to the team without the ball in 2009, with the tackler having full rights to the ball, even after the ruck had been formed. This law, together with the no passing back into the 22, made fielding or running the ball in your own half a kamikaze proposition. Against this background, Heinrich Brüssow and Morne Steyne, a world class scavenger and goal kicker respectively, burst onto the scene. Could there possibly have been a better year for these two players to appear in the South African squad?
This new imperative in the game – keeping away from the ball – also translated into how the meager number of tries were scored in 2009; 67% of them were scored with 3 passes or less, against 40% in 2008. Of South Africa’s tries, 9 out of the 10 were scored with 3 passes or less preceding them. 71% of all tries were scored within 1 ruck or maul, vs 47% in 2008. Continuity is dead.
Whether or not this is a good or bad predicament for rugby overall is probably a matter of perspective. While the rest of the world bemoan a fragmented kick-athon, South Africa and Ireland (another exceptionally low passing/high kicking team in 2009) revel in what they call “traditional tight rugby”. The IRB has mumbled something about reviewing the breakdown laws, but nothing is committed. So the question for 2010 is how do you beat this game-plan?
To start, with the laws as they are, there’s no getting around the territory game. In the deciding Tri-Nations match at home in Hamilton, a full strength All Black team held the ball for over 21 minutes (the highest Tri-Nations figure in 2009) and still lost. As unedifying as two sides trying to not to have the ball may be, you must master aerial ping-pong. Reading this blog entry from the Assistant Springbok Coach Gary Gold, you’ll see how much they think about their kicking game, and know what they’re trying to achieve with it.
Kicks, therefore, must be more accurate and designed to create pressure, which only comes from an organised, consistent kick-chase. For the Wallabies, this was patchy at best in 2009 and needs to improve. What Australia did build on was getting runners behind the ball to create attacking opportunities, a potential kick-fest anti-dote, if used judiciously.
The other plank in combating this game plan is to attack the Boks key possession and strike platforms – the scrum and line-out.
The scrum was their strongest try scoring platform, with 4 of their 10 tries coming from it along with 20% of all Tri-Nations penalties. The good news here is that the Boks scrum wasn’t traveling well by the end of the Tri-Nations, and this carried over into Europe. It’s also becoming a point of strength for the Wallabies.
The Bok line-out is no weak link, but the amount of possession surrendered to it was astounding. It won almost 40% of all opposition throws in 2009; twice as many as the other two teams combined. Simply taking your own throw would dramatically shift the balance of power, but with only 44% of South Africa’s line-outs even being challenged (vs 65% of Australia’s), there’s also plenty of headroom to get some pressure onto their own ball as well.
What this means is that the Wallaby line-out has to be the next point of focus for the Wallabies management. As mentioned in a previous post, Nathan Sharpe being the sole specialist line-out jumper in Australia has become a case of neglect. The Wallabies need to be fast-tracking some 200cm+ specialist locks (forget the lock/flankers), getting an expert coach (Foles, Googy, Vicks, from up North?) and imparting as much of dark arts as possible ASAP. I see no reason why there couldn’t be clinics run within the S14 franchises to accelerate the process ahead of the next international season, so vital is the accelerated development here.
While this may be a blueprint to take care of the Saffas in 2010, it’s also what’s needed for any team who aims to lift Bill in 2011, as this game plan is what we always see come finals footy. The questions is; can the Wallabies face up to the stats and do what’s needed to be done to become true contenders?