Broken Blitz

The Springboks post-Lions performance is a concern

When you’re the World Champions and Lions series winners, you’ve got a pretty big target on your back. It isn’t that South Africa sprung a surprise on anyone when they won the World Cup in 2019 but the manner of their victory was certainly a punch in the eye for a lot of pundits and teams who felt that the Springboks were too limited, offensively, to make a serious run at the Webb Ellis.

The Springboks win was based on top-class set-piece dominance, high percentage tactical kicking and a suffocating, brutal outside-in blitz defence. It wasn’t as simple as all that but those are the broad strokes of how they built their way to winning it all in late 2019 and those core qualities were even more important in their grinding win over the Lions this past summer.

Without much in the way of attacking cohesion, the Springboks fell back on their outstanding set-piece, defence and their tactical kicking game to outlast the Lions after two full seasons away from the test arena.

That tactical kicking was a massive focus in the media during the series. How could the Lions learn to live with it? How could they respond to the pressure? Is this “boring” style of play what we want to see on the world stage?

The last question is pertinent because one of the most common complaints about the game of Rugby Union in the last number of years has been the prevalence of box kicking in the elite game. The Springboks are perceived to be big “offenders” in this regard with Faf de Klerk and Handré Pollard regularly kicking contestably 10+ times per game during 2019 and again during that Lions series.

Box kicking is slow, it cheeses the clock and it leads to a lot of the game being played in a very small area of the field. That was rugby as it had come to be played in the pre-50/22 era. Everything I’ve seen in the 50/22 game so far suggests to me that it can be a radical overhaul of the game as we know it. The changes aren’t massively visible yet but the concepts that 50/22 are already taking hold, in my opinion.

As much as the average punter hates box kicking, it was and is an incredibly effective strategy for exiting your own half, tactically speaking. The Springboks utilised this tactic to the maximum because of their use of kicking in tandem with their heavy-hitting, outside in blitz defence.

Essentially, the Springboks were able to conserve their energy by kicking after one or two phases in their own half of the field and pressurise the opposition receipt of the ball.

If they won the ball back in the air, they just made free metres and all they had to do was kick and chase.

If they force an opposition error under the high ball, they win a scrum and get possession back.

If the opposition takes the ball and manages to keep it on landing, the Springboks would then begin to punish those reset phases defensively.

The Springbok’s inside defence is one of the biggest and hardest hitting in the game and their outside-in blitz is designed to cut off any play to width, funnelling the ball back inside to their heavy-hitting forward defenders. Essentially, the Springboks move the ball into your half of the field with the minimum effort expended, where they either win back possession, earn a set piece or punish you while you have the ball until you kick the ball back and back inside for the likes of Etzebeth, Kitshoff, de Jager, Kolisi, Vermuelen, Du Toit and others to hammer you in contact. If you managed to hang onto the ball, you would likely kick the ball back to the Springboks within a few phases, where they can attack on transition or restart the process.

Four of the five most likely scenarios that the Springboks can generate from a contestable box kick or high bomb from Pollard to the wings are all things that South Africa can easily live with;

  • Springboks win the high ball – attack further up the pitch ✅
  • Springboks chase forces a knock on – attack the transition on an advantage or get the ball back for a scrum/penalty opportunity or a launch. ✅
  • Springbok chase knocks on the ball – defend the immediate transition and live with a defensive scrum. ✅
  • Opposition takes the ball cleanly – defend the immediate transition and begin your outside in blitz pattern to encourage a kickback or attack the breakdown under pressure. ✅
  • Opposition takes the ball, evades the immediate defence – Springboks have to scramble and recover time down the field. ❌

It forms a fundamental part of their game because it allows them to leverage their best feature – their punishing defensive system – as an offensive feature.

The Springboks are incredibly comfortable defending the opposition in their 22-50m zone because it is the sweet spot between moving the ball far enough away from your try line to be an effective defensive exit, while also being in a zone that will normally force the opposition to kick themselves within a few phases.

Why?

Because when you move the ball to the opposition’s 10m line, you are pressurising them physically without the ball – all the skill pressure is on them while you exert effort and physicality – but you are also taxing their tactical theory. Most sides play to an instruction that, unless a clear opportunity presents itself, you’ll kick within three or four phases in that area of the field. The Springboks kicking game is based on attacking this “theory” by consistently pressurising you into an area where it is difficult to exit while in possession of the ball.

You can kick the ball to touch under this system but you still concede possession to the Boks, who have one of the highest percentage completion lineouts in the test game. Again they’ll live with that, take it at the front, maul, exit, chase and go again.

It was a sequence of play that was perfectly suited to the Springboks strengths.

But that was in the pre-50/22 era.

I’ve been over 50/22 quite a bit since it was first mooted and later brought in as an official law trial and my belief is that it has a profound effect on blitz defending and box kicking that we have only seen the first glimpses of. A successful 50/22 kick during transition phase play is uniquely painful to the Springbok preferred sequence of play, in my opinion.

Have a look at this sequence from #RSAvAUS two weeks ago. The Springboks concede an offside penalty on it but that doesn’t really matter. The ball is taken right on the halfway line which, as far as any of the Springbok players are aware in this moment, opens up the opportunity for a possible 50/22.

The 50/22 law in this instance targets the defensive routes and coverage of the Springbok defenders furthest away from the ball and punishes any attempt to spread the ball away from the chase by cutting off any play to the far wing – an outside blitz, so to speak.

Pre 50/22, this was a “no lose” situation for the Springboks because bar an outstanding transition attack or a penalty concession, every possible outcome lead to the Springboks getting the ball back.

Now that’s changed. Look at the way the Boks edge transition defence chases up the field on this de Klerk box kick and keep an eye on the touchline of the 22 that remains unguarded.

Mapimpi, the outside chaser, is in a covering position to guard against potential of a 50/22 but this kind of chase pattern isn’t a reaction to 50/22. The Springboks chased like this against the Lions from a similar position on the 22 but the real kicker was the picture as Quade Cooper kicked the ball, even if he was on penalty advantage.

The back field core of the Springboks defence – Le Roux and Pollard as deep defenders, Nkosi and Mapimpi as pendulum defenders and de Klerk as the sweeper behind the primary line when the ball moves across the centre of the field – are quite compressed on this play, which would be standard for the Boks. Am is the highest pressing player on this phase and he’s perfectly suited to that role.

Why is Am so pivotal to the Springboks’ defence? Because he’s got the pace to cover that outside space like a winger in these circumstances.

Mapimpi and Le Roux, however, are not set up to optimally defend a raking 50/22 attempt from Cooper in this position but this is part and parcel of the deal the Springboks are usually happy to make when defending the aftermath of a kick chase. The compressed “W” naturally gives up space on the flank to cover the chip over the top of the defensive blitz, which is the usual threat associated with a high line-speed system.

Le Roux, Pollard and de Klerk are usually in range to snaffle up any chip attempt over the top of the defensive line but that compact formation naturally gives up space on the flanks. Under the old laws, even the best kick in this position handed possession back to the Springboks but with 50/22, the same kick is the equivalent of winning a penalty around the 10m line that produces a massive lineout platform.

That tendency to compress backfield space is a tough habit to break. This 50/22 the Springboks conceded in the first game against Australia seemed to be based on the same principle of looking to outside blitz – Nkosi going hard to cut off the outside pass with le Roux covering behind – and Mapimpi having to cover the space centrally when de Klerk tracked with the ball off the scrum.

Three months ago, the Springboks are quite comfortable with this sequence of play but under 50/22, it’s a 30m loss of territory and possession. 50/22 isn’t necessarily about the kicks you land, it’s about the ones you could land on any given phase.

That will create a reaction in the opposition defence. It won’t always be a dramatic restructuring of the primary line, secondary and back field but it will create a subtle movement of position. Like this – when the Springboks were defending wide and gave up a deep kick down the middle to Cooper that lost the Springboks ground sequence for sequence.

In the first clip, when Cooper takes the 50/22 eligible possession, Am signals to Mapimpi to keep his width in the backfield as the play develops.

That opens up the seam in the middle of the field for Cooper to target, which pulls the Springbok line way deeper than you would normally expect from a kick like this.

When Cooper gets that ball bouncing in the middle seam, that is a big win for the Wallabies on this sequence because they receive the ball further up the pitch than they kicked it. When the Springboks had to go wider to defend that 22 space, it created a space up the middle of the field that then created a higher quality transition opportunity on the next exit.

That wasn’t just when the Boks were down a player either. That space showed itself pretty regularly throughout both tests.  The danger of 50/22 was greatly exaggerated when the Springboks conceded possession near the Wallaby 10m line because that is when the Springboks are most likely to have a 14+1 alignment – 14 defenders in the primary line with one player covering the backfield.

Here’s a good example of that principle, with a focus on the outside edge defenders behaviour on two similarly positioned

Look at De Allende scrambling back to cover the kick here – this wouldn’t be a normal coverage position for him – and the Wallabies hurt the Boks on the chase. A few minutes later, they got width from the 22 and should have created a better opportunity with the break.

On both occasions, the cover was quite deep but this isn’t anything new. Had 50/22 been active in the Lions tour, the situational Springboks 14+1 press would have been exploited with this long-range kick by Farrell.

This is all contributing to a Springbok defence that has been upset from its preferred sequencing of the game. If the Springboks strategy pre-50/22 was primarily based on isolating the opposition in their 22-50 area, the advent of the 50/22 kicking law has upended the strategic value of that tactic.

I think, if anything, it’s introduced more running into the Springboks game than is optimal because it now makes more sense for your #10 to kick from your 22-50m area.

When the #10 kicks, the distances are father, especially when you have to cover the backfield and edges with more urgency in a world where losing a transition in the opponents half can now be worth the equivalent of conceding a penalty.

That’s before we get into the extra range the Springboks had to cover because of the Wallabies depth from the gain line, but that’s an article I’ll follow up on after this weekend’s All Blacks game.