It was Edmund Burke who once said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Perhaps it is inappropriate to suggest that the All Blacks are evil, but for the purpose of this article I am going to use this quote liberally and translate it to: “The only thing necessary for the All Blacks to triumph is for the Springboks to do nothing.”
South Africa has a nigh on insurmountable challenge ahead of them if they want to survive the semi-final and progress to the Rugby World Cup final in a fortnight from now.
The manner in which New Zealand dismantled, nay, demolished the French defence was nothing short of horrific, it was like watching the sequel to “The Chainsaw Massacre”.
In the end the French must have felt capitulating was the obvious route as the ‘Bus’ Julian Savea was steamrolling them with ease, and the physical pain was too much to bear when added onto the mental anguish they were going through.
South Africa on the other hand struggled to break down a resolute Welsh defence, they struggled to control territory and their tactical game play was inadequate to play in the right areas.
It was only when they started to keep ball in-hand that they managed to retain the lion’s share of possession and found themselves inside Welsh territory for most of the second half.
But even then, they struggled to convert territorial and possession advantage into points.
Heyneke Meyer has made a big focus on how to play the All Blacks. If you categorise his matches into percentiles for Springboks intensity and superhuman effort, the seven Tests against New Zealand since 2012 will all fall within the top 10 for intensity, lift and focus.
What is remarkable though is the almost comradeship between Steven Hansen and Meyer and the respect they have shown for one another and their respective teams. The mere fact that it was Hansen who texted Meyer a message of encouragement after the Japan disaster illustrates the enormous respect they have for one another.
So what would the Springboks need to do to achieve the unlikely? Perhaps we should start by looking at their recent history against one another.
South Africa lost 11-21 in Dunedin September 15, 2012
South Africa lost 16-32 in Johannesburg October 6, 2012
South Africa lost 15-29 in Auckland September 14, 2013
South Africa lost 27-38 in Johannesburg October 5, 2013
South Africa lost 10-14 in Wellington September 13, 2014
South Africa won 27-25 in Johannesburg October 4, 2014
South Africa lost 20-27 in Johannesburg July 25, 2015
Average score: 26-18 to New Zealand
Average tries scored: 3-2 to New Zealand
Looking at the previous results, South Africa have a chance of around 20 per cent to beat the All Blacks, and those are the statistics Meyer will stare at in the training class.
How does Meyer increase his odds to beat the All Blacks?
They would need to improve both their defence as well as attack. In defence their discipline, defensive organisation and tackle completion will be key, and territory will play a key part in limiting the New Zealand score. There is of course retaining possession, too, which is undervalued as a defensive mechanism.
The longer you hold onto the ball, the less opportunity the opposition have of attacking you.
I suspect set piece for both teams would be on par, with no real clear advantages either way.
The thing about defence is that you need to be smart, and unfortunately at this point with a young combination at 10-12-13 that will be a challenge.
South Africa will have to ensure that they pressure the ball at source, they need to pressurise the breakdown without committing too many numbers. They need to ensure there are no mismatches in the backline, and they would not want Ben Smith or any other New Zealand back to have a one-on-one opportunity with any of their slow forwards.
The Springboks will no doubt employ a rush defence, and it will be important that their back three sweep well and float well, always being able to support one another. You can bet your bottom dollar New Zealand will exploit the spaces behind the rush defence.
They will have to make their first-time tackles, the more you rely on your cover defence the more chances you create for your opponent.
Tactically South Africa will have to keep New Zealand in their half of the field for periods at a time to frustrate them and generate turnover opportunities through mistakes.
Although focus and intensity on defence is vital, there are those ‘twilight’ periods or the dusk and dawn periods of each half where South Africa will be most vulnerable.
New Zealand have shown in this World Cup that their attack is based on wave upon wave of pods running at you, support runners on the shoulders, and the ball carrier with soft hands simply draws his man and passes onto the next support runner.
It is astounding when you look at the simplicity of the move. They outnumber your defenders, the pod runners run themselves into space and when they get the ball the wave simply continues until the next defender is drawn and passed.
Hesitation will be the death of them, Dan Carter has shown he is back in form, Ma’a Nonu outside of him is lethal with his little grubbers, the elusiveness of their backs means they can spin out of tackles and still manage to offload.
It isn’t going to be easy, but that is all I have. Focus, commit to the ball carrier, pressure the source of the ball and keep them inside their half as long as possible.
It is on attack where South Africa have their biggest challenge ahead.
Thus far they have used Schalk Burger almost exclusively as first receiver, so much so that he has now become the predictable target for defensive lines. You can’t fault Burger for his role, it is one placed upon him by Meyer, but it is seriously predictable.
Thus far South Africa have not attacked wide much at all, the narrowness of their attack has been easily nullified, especially by Wales who played a complete defensive-minded game. The less physical teams couldn’t cope with the juggernaut, but then New Zealand do not lack in the physical stakes so creative attack will be essential.
I have looked at areas South Africa can focus on in order to have varied attacks and lessen their predictability, because if they want to break down the New Zealand defence they will have to keep them guessing and catch them off guard.
But first some technical issues.
Lood de Jager was turned over a few times against Wales, in fact not only him, it was noticeable that the Springboks endeavoured to retain the ball in one hand to keep it available for offload in the contact area, but on a number of occasions the support runners weren’t there, or badly out of position. That meant the ball became the target in the tackle, and subsequently got ripped a number of times.
On other occasions the Welsh stepped, swam, did the roundabout, or whatever you want to call it, to take a flying hack at the ball in the ruck, and lack of focused effort to ensure the ball was secure was the cause.
New Zealand are known for not engaging in every ruck, but they do have the ability to smell opportunity for turnovers. It is almost as if they lull you into a false sense of security and you stop protecting your ball, only for them to pounce, turn the ball over and punish you with counter attacks.
Patience and ball security will be key to building phase attack, and the ball has to go wide before the red zone. There is less space to exploit deep into an opponent’s red zone than there is space to exploit from further out.
Think of it in terms of depth. The closer to the red zone you are on attack, the flatter your attack becomes and therefore the variable depth of your attack becomes limited. The deeper you attack the more variable depth you have to exploit. Be it for chip kicks into space, cross kicks or grubbers.
South Africa can only use their maul drive once, and they should keep it for some time in the second half, the predictability of their maul drive means teams can negate it. There are other manners in which the lineout can be used as a base to attack the line from. Bring Bryan Habana in, split the lineout, throw quickly to the prop and back to the hooker; the Springboks will need to be inventive.
Set piece or first phase attacks should not become predictable, and the opportunity from set piece is out wide. South Africa should not be afraid to give the ball some air as this is the ideal opportunity to use Handre Pollard’s incisive running, but vary it with more ball to Damian de Allende to change the angle of attack.
Turn over ball must go to space, and to the speedsters, trucking up turn over ball into traffic immediately negates any advantage.
Thus far South Africa have not exploited any space behind the rush defence, the main reason could be their inaccurate tactical kicking. They have also not attacked wide with any regularity or cut back inside to run onto weak shoulders. The few times Pollard employed the skip pass he was way too flat and skip passes should never be employed on a flat attack with rush defence, the risk will always be there for the intercept.
South Africa have been one of the most successful teams in crossing the gain line, but the reason you cross the gain line is to put defences on the back foot, and when you have defences on the back foot you need to exploit that with pace onto the ball, and into space. De Allende is useful when he gets the ball at pace into a half gap, he will always attract a number of defenders and can then provide Jesse Kriel with more space to accelerate into.
Habana and JP Pietersen are simply not seeing enough ball, the statistics show that Argentina, Australia and New Zealand’s backs use 50 per cent of the ball in carries, in South Africa’s case it is only 33 per cent.
South Africa have an almighty challenge ahead of them, the rhino runs are useful, but only up to a certain point.
Momentum must be utilised more creatively, the only way South Africa are going to stand a chance of beating New Zealand is to be less predictable. They will need to have a few surprises in store, otherwise the old cliché of ‘You know what you get when you play South Africa’ is going to be another condemnation of another failed attempt to win the William Webb Ellis.
Whether the last seven Tests against New Zealand have been experimental in the manner of how we will engage them this coming weekend is of course the main debate. Some will say you aren’t going to run New Zealand off their feet, but the reality is you aren’t going to stop them from scoring if you keep playing predictable rugby and continue to feed them the ball either.
I would rather the players don’t die wondering and play the game of their lives. They should be free to express themselves rather than sit back and hope they are going to limit New Zealand to less than 16 points with a defensively focused gameplan and a risk-averse mindset.
He who dares wins, the alternative is simply just too depressing.