For most of their history, the Springboks were giants.
Give the average rugby fan five words to describe the Boks and you will hear: “Big. Huge. Brutal. Physical. Dirty.”
But while Japan’s pack is now the same size as Scotland’s, South Africa can go biggest by a bit.
The 2019 version of the Boks are not often guilty of foul play, but nothing has changed or diminished in the (legal) brutality of their hits.
If England lose to South Africa in the final of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, it will most likely not be based on size, weight, or brutality.
The English are stronger in the gym, with a thicker hooker, stouter props, a super-athlete lock, more vicious tattoos, and no fear of contact.
For about a decade, English and South African schoolboy rugby have produced the largest and fastest teams; smart Kiwi coaching abates it.
The Under-20 packs of South Africa, England and France are as big as Scotland’s senior forward group. Many are now in this final.
The two most powerful teams remain. Not necessarily the most skillful week in, week out – both have their flaws.
England failed to win a series in South Africa in 2018, failed to win the Six Nations in 2019, and let Scotland draw them 38-38 at Twickers.
South Africa lost to New Zealand in the opening match of Pool B, when their best back and their best forward dropped simple Garryowens.
The Boks have looked clumsy on attack in the red zone, almost relieved to hear the whistle, and have a fullback devoid of belief.
But size matters – it is not everything, nor is it the most important thing but these packs are huge.
If the Boks pull the upset, it will probably be based on other labels, like: “Aggression. Decisiveness. Quickness. Speed. Accuracy.”
All Bok fans (and coaches) would be happy if we were talking here about attack. The truth is we are only referring to the defence.
The attack is inconsistent, hesitant. Plenty of tries have been scored, but mostly from counter-attacks from aggressive or fast tackles.
Oh, and the maul. A turgid, abhorrent, soul-stripping driving maul with a big, nasty hooker appended, supported by an annoying halfback.
But back to the good stuff. South Africa has the most aggressive and speedy defence in world rugby. The defensive pattern is a bit unusual.
Defensive coach Jacques Nienaber’s goal was to push the tries conceded down below one per Test. He built an outlandishly stingy defence at the Stormers, and then at Munster, but along the way, Nienaber was honing it using GPS data.
His friend and boss, Rassie Erasmus, owned the performance intellectual property from South African Rugby Union, as part of the institute he led.
This allowed them to select differently, but one thing was absolutely going to guide their path: all 23 game-day Boks would have to defend, nobody could hide or stay on the floor. 2018 would reveal who would make it to 2019 and there would need to be a rover-back (at 9).
The 2018 results were horrific, courtesy of these same English. Jonny May and Elliot Daly scored in South Africa at will.
Yes, the early Erasmus Boks also scored fluidly and won the high-scoring series with a game to spare, but the defensive line was shambolic.
The wings sprint before they read the opponents’ play, and pull an aggressive, fast 9 across the back-line like a sweeper in sevens. The consequence is that no matter how well a scrumhalf passes, the determining Erasmus-Nienaber factor for a Bok 9 is aggressive speed.
Thus, plucking from obscurity of Embrose Papier (2018), then Herschel Jantjies (2019) and choosing lightning-fast Cobus Reinach.
Faf de Klerk is the world’s busiest nine, blitzing opposing fly-halves, as well as scrambling behind any mini-breaks.
And the wings?
In this system, they have to be off the charts on speed, lateral quickness, and anaerobic repetition stamina, as they chase and gun.
The current wings never hang and wait or drift. They always bite, so nobody should call that an error. They are biters. They jam.
Because gasmen like Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe don’t wait to read the play, they are often in places nobody expects. Even the Boks. The whole theory is to kill moves before the ball goes wide, but bank on their own speed and Faf’s and the rest of the cover defence.
The overall goal is to shrink the time to think and make it difficult to play any rugby at all, unless a team is willing to come inside and battle over the gain-line or through the props.
So far, in 2019, only the All Blacks have found a way to penetrate the middle of the defence, after kicking over or around it first.
But the next part is to contest more than any other team at the breakdown, not to pilfer like an openside, but to slow the ball, and disengage only when the referee scolds, which requires more of the team to have over-the-ball skills.
Slowing the ball for a second extra allows the defensive line to set and shoot on-side, and commits more attackers to clean. It may take two cleaners.
In many Tests in 2019, against the elite teams, the Boks contested three-quarters of opposition rucks, not to steal, but to slow or mess it up, so this includes counter-rucking. Against Japan, they did not do this. For England, they will.
This ‘offensive defence’ will be the true test of the English attack scheme. The best way to attack the Boks is to kick behind the umbrella.
The lowest-performing Bok is Willie le Roux. Perhaps Erasmus will drop him for the final and bring in Frans Steyn, Damian Willemse or Warrick Gelant – all of whom are fantastic under the high ball. But le Roux is Erasmus’ attack playmaker in the opponent’s red zone.
And so it would be a big call.
Can the Boks upset England? Yes. That is proven.
In 2018, at the end, the Boks held the Chariot at home to 12 points.
But all roads lead to the performance of the back three, again. Willie has to rediscover his magic, the wings (Cheslin Kolbe is back) have to be on fire both sides of the ball, and the Boks will need to box clever – not just be big, huge, physical, and brutal.