The Lions Eye

Lions Tour Test 2 :: Springboks (A)

I opened last week’s Lion’s Eye article with “It’s been a hell of a week”. How wrong I was. Last week hasn’t got a patch on this week. If I told you last Thursday that this Thursday we’d be talking about Rassie Erasmus possibly replying to himself on Twitter with a burner account highlighting referee errors and that he would follow this up with a one hour and three minutes long expose video highlighting every single grievance the Springboks had with Nic Berry’s performance you would not have believed me.

You would have said, “stop lying about the future Tom, I beg you. The future sounds cringe and I don’t like it”.

I wish I had been lying in this hypothetical scenario. I believe in the endless possibilities of a multiverse; that every possibility that can happen actually does happen in a different reality. I hope it’s true because if it is, I’d like to book a ticket to the reality where everything is pretty much the same except this past week of Twitter nonsense spilling over into real-life never happened. It’s like if the build-up to the 2009 series had been dominated by Ian McGeechan consistently rickrolling Peter De Villiers’ Myspace page. Imagine Jim Telfer’s “this is your Everest, boys” speech if the Everest he was talking about was an endless pile of cringe.

This has been the most bizarre build to a game of this scale I’ve ever experienced and no one is any better for it. I started off the week being vaguely amused by the Twitter nonsense over the weekend and even found Rassie dunking on Clive Woodward on Tuesday to be particularly life-affirming but that was replaced on Thursday morning with a sense of ennui akin to that of seeing your dad dying on his arse at a stand up open mic.

The publication of Rassie’s Magnum Opus of Refereeing Injustice wasn’t fun. It wasn’t shithousing. It was outside the spirit of the game to the point where you could argue that he’s attempting to tamper with the referee ahead of the second test, something Warren Gatland could be accused of by-proxy with the TMO of last week’s game through carefully stage-managed “reports” to the embedded Lions press corp.

This all sucks, quite frankly, and has turned the build-up to the second test into a nasty hashtag after a contentious loss with freeze frames, frame by frame breakdowns of supposed foul play and wild accusations ranging from corruption to outright racism.

It wasn’t needed either, that’s the thing. The first test was a very tight game decided by the smallest of tactical margins that had nothing to do with Nic Berry. If anything, I would suggest that the selection of Kwagga Smith in an off-role position had more of an effect on the game than any time Berry blew his whistle.

Even that misses that South Africa had opportunities to win the game that were awarded to them by Nic Berry. The Springboks have focused quite a bit on the Hamish Watson non-decision after his tip tackle – which, to be fair, I think should probably have been a yellow card – but the fact that Pollard missed the resulting kick at goal to put South Africa back in front has fallen off the radar. The Springboks left five points on the tee and lost by five points in a game where they lost control of the scoreboard due to the Lions exploiting an off-role player.

At the very highest level, those margins are razor-thin but they’re costly. Remember the cardinal rule – if you let a ref into the game, it’s your own fault. It’s true for Munster games, it’s true for Ireland games and it’s true for the Springboks.

Whatever happens this weekend, the Springboks have 80 minutes to save the series and no amount of focus on the referee pre-game will change that. Let’s hope they have made the adjustments they needed to along with hour-long documentaries or the series will be over on Saturday.

South Africa: 15. Willie Le Roux, 14. Cheslin Kolbe, 13. Lukhanyo Am, 12. Damian De Allende, 11. Makazole Mapimpi, 10. Handré Pollard, 9. Faf De Klerk; 1. Steven Kitshoff, 2. Bongi Mbonambi, 3. Frans Malherbe, 4. Eben Etzebeth, 5. Franco Mostert, 6. Siya Kolisi (c), 7. Pieter-Steph Du Toit, 8. Jasper Wiese

Replacements: 16. Malcolm Marx, 17. Trevor Nyakane, 18. Vincent Koch, 19. Lood De Jager, 20. Marco Van Staden, 21. Kwagga Smith, 22.Herschel Jantjies, 23. Damian Willemse

I was not surprised to see Jasper Wiese restored to the starting XV for this game after dropping out of the squad completely for the first test.

I didn’t think he’d been that bad in the South Africa A game against the Lions or the Bulls but Duane Vermuelen he is not, at least from a defensive intelligence perspective. I don’t mean that he’s stupid or anything like that, I mean that he’s not the same kind of defensive “captain” a guy like Vermuelen is with regards to organising the balance of the Springboks defensive line around the ruck. Wiese is a guy who you want following a defensive captain, not handing out the orders himself and there’s no shame in that. Kwagga Smith is much closer to that type of player from an intellectual perspective and I think it’s this ability that lead to his selection to start last week.

In the South Africa A vs Bulls game before the first test, Smith and Weise actually played in the same selection in the second half. Smith spent the first half in that “defensive scouting” position that the Springboks use, which is essentially a moving pillar position that tracks ruck to ruck to give the defensive captain the best lay of the land.

In the Springboks system of overlapping cover, managing numbers on either side of the ruck is really important because the harder and higher the wingers’ blitz, the more important the numbers covering for them inside are. Essentially, if the Boks system forces you back inside, you better have numbers there to make the tackles that make the system work. The Springboks don’t punish missed tackles but I think they hold bad folds against you.

The first Bulls try in that game – sorry I don’t have video footage for this one – came from a line break created by a bad overfold that was first started by Jasper Wiese on a defensive route from a midfield lineout. Mbatha, the replacement hooker, is in the scouting position but two loose forwards are now on the wrong side of the ruck.

I think the Springbok scheme best works in this situation with Wiese holding the inside position here, or at least jockeying in the centre because it would allow Mbatha and Louw to move out, which in turn adds another forward defender to the edge.

Wiese took the outside lane, Smith followed him to stay on the scheme and when the play came back against the flow, there was a huge lane for the Bulls to target.

That initial central “push” of defenders matching up with the Bulls three pod leaves a prop at the edge with Du Preez being forced to cover more space than is optimal.

That all came from a bad fold off a lineout hit up and two of the three loose forwards on the field were completely out of the game when the ball came back across.

Throw in a few poor carries and a few other defensive slip-ups and you can see why Wiese dipped out of selection for the first test. He’s not a defensive captain and he didn’t take up any of the defensive kick positions that he had a few days earlier against the Lions. In fact, against the Bulls, South Africa A didn’t follow any of the kicking principles that they would use against the Lions a week later.

But when we go back to that unofficial first test, you can see Wiese taking up most of the same positions that Smith would over a week later.

The one exception to this was Smith staying close to the ruck on regular phase play as opposed to dipping into the backfield because I think the Springboks wanted to limit his involvement under the high ball but they didn’t take into account how that would play out on their restart strategy.

Why did they select Smith for the first test? On the evidence of the Georgia game, the unofficial test and the game against the Bulls, Smith had the least amount of errors, the highest defensive IQ and he would free up Kolisi and Du Toit to be “hitters” for the Boks. Crucially, however, he did not get targeted in the way he would against the Lions.

The Bulls, for example, kicked to Damian De Allende almost exclusively on their restarts to the “back pins”. The Lions, outside the kickoff, kicked almost exclusively to Smith during the first test restarts. The Bulls, too, did not get a chance to attack Smith via box kick in the backfield off the Springbok restart because Smith didn’t run that route against the Bulls off the restart.

Conversely, Smith did drop into backfield coverage off regular box kick exits, something he wouldn’t do against the Lions – presumably to limit his exposure to the expected box kick onslaught from the Lions. You can see him dipping into the backfield on this deep box kick exit.

So what does this mean?

It means that between the unofficial first test, the Bulls game and the first test proper, the Springboks made a number of adjustments to what they wanted from their Eightman on certain roles.

In the unofficial first test, Wiese ran the backfield route on restarts, took restarts on the backfield and dipped back into the backfield on slow box kick setups, with varying levels of success.

He also “ran the ruck” pretty well in that game albeit with some bad missed tackles on transition – the kind you can’t really afford to concede if that makes sense.

In the Bulls game, Smith was in the Boks’ Eightman role but, crucially, didn’t take any kick receipts so could not show any weakness in that area of the game. Wiese, on the other hand, had an entire game highlighting sub-optimal moments in that role – a few missed tackles, a few errors under the highball and on the reset phase after the high ball. In context, if we’re to put ourselves into the Springbok camp, you’d go with what you’ve seen and use Smith, even with the drawbacks that come with him, because of the upside you expect to get when you are without the clear #1 in the position, Duane Vermuelen.

That it then turned into a liability because the Lions attacked Smith with success repeatedly on the first chance they got and then repeatedly afterwards will change minds in a hurry.

I think the Springboks will live with Wiese possibly coughing up an error here or there because whatever about anything else, he generally wins post aerial collisions under pressure.

If Wiese’s hands hold up, the Springboks will remove the area of the game that cost them critical momentum in the second half and, not only that, they’ll have a better, simpler ball-carrying rotation because they can bring Wiese on-ball with more regularity than they managed with Smith, who took a more secondary role when he wasn’t getting smashed on restarts, which amounted to the bulk of his on-ball involvements.

For the Lions, this means a balance will have to be struck with their kicking game, which didn’t properly come to life until the very first box kick of the second half off the Springbok restart, which saw Smith and Le Roux blow a take, lose a collision, concede a penalty under pressure and ultimately began a sequence that resulted in the first Lions try.

Wiese will not be perfect under the highball – he has an error or two in him there, for certain along with worries over his defensive IQ and composure – but he should not lose the same collisions that Smith did at key junctions, while also giving a more direct ball-carrying threat off the scrum and lineout.

Is this the adjustment that will tilt the balance back towards the Springboks? I can’t wait to find out.