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From savvy selection to superior scrum: How the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup

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6 days ago
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Genuine humility is a rare jewel. It is like a whisper, almost inaudible. Those who speak through it talk with the low murmur of quiet emotion. They speak as if they would prefer not to disturb the silence at all.

It is this quality which entered the room for the post-match press conference with South African head coach Rassie Erasmus and captain Siya Kolisi after their World Cup victory over England.

It informed Erasmus’ words when he spoke poignantly about Kolisi’s early life in the Zwide township of Port Elizabeth. Kolisi frequently went without shoes or food growing up, or had to beg a lift to school.

“We started talking about pressure,” Erasmus said.

“In South Africa, it (pressure) is not having a job. Pressure is having a close relative who is murdered.

“In South Africa, there is a lot of problems that create pressure. Rugby should not be something that creates pressure, rugby should create hope… For those 80 minutes, you agree when you usually disagree.

“We started believing in that and saying that is not our responsibility, that is our privilege to try and fix those things.

“The moment you see it that way it becomes a hell of a privilege and that was the way we tackled the whole World Cup campaign.”

Rassie Erasmus

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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Many elite sporting teams talk about creating internal pressure by driving their own set of standards on and off the field. For Erasmus and Kolisi, the pressure was right there from the start, and they did not have to go looking for it.

For the coach, it came from the political context which frames South Africa as a rugby nation. A policy of racial transformation requires that all major sporting teams represent the country’s diversity accurately in terms of numbers.

Hence the demand for quotas – 50 per cent of the Springboks squad for the World Cup had to be of colour, so the starting side in Yokohama on Saturday contained eight white players and seven of colour, while the captain was, for the first time, a man proud of his Xhosa ethnic roots.

The quotas policy has become a focal point for the political issues which are tearing South Africa apart. As recently as March this year, the Solidarity trade union (composed of a majority of white members) applied to a Johannesburg labour court to have the policy of racial quotas in sport overturned.

“Our focus is to remove specific provisions of the transformation charter… which specifically relate to the adoption of quotas,” their legal representative, Werner Human, said.

“Quota, we contend, is against the provision of the constitution, (and) is strictly against the employment (laws).

“Ultimately we would wish to have a sporting environment which is more depoliticised (and) focus can truly be on talent.”

Even Kolisi himself appeared to question the quota system in an interview with Japanese television in January:

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“I think you shouldn’t put a number on stuff like that [racial quotas]… If you want to force someone into the Springbok team, and maybe they are not good enough, they have one bad game, you will probably never see them again…

“Representing South Africa is a tough because we want results and transformation. But it can… the guys playing there now, I think, the talent’s there.

“I wouldn’t want to be picked because of my skin colour. That surely wouldn’t be good for the team. The guys around you, surely, would know.

“And it’s tough for us as players because now if you put a certain amount or number on it, are you actually there because you are good enough? Or – even if you are – sometimes you doubt yourself.”

Siya Kolisi

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The real miracle of the 2019 World Cup occurred off the field, through Erasmus’ unerring assessment of the needs for results on the one hand and racial transformation on the other. In that sense, he succeeded in turning water into wine.

The principal failure of previous Springbok regimes was the inability to identify the players of colour who were capable of developing into fully fledged internationals. Who remembers Jamba Ulengo, Uzair Kassiem or Raymond Rhule?

The names of Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am and Bongi Mbonambi will not be so easily be forgotten after events in Japan over the past seven weeks. They and others like them – Trevor Nyakane, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Damian Willemse, Herschel Jantjies, Warrick Gelant and Lizo Gqoboka – are likely to enjoy long and illustrious Test careers.

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Erasmus not only identified the most likely prospects among players of colour, he identified the positions where they were most likely to succeed. The current crop includes some outstanding front-row forwards and outside backs, and the selection in the front row was especially important.

The unit comprising Tendai ‘the Beast’ Mtawarira, Bongi Mbonambi and Nyakane was selected en bloc to start the Rugby Championship matches against Argentina and Australia earlier in the year.

That combination was dominant at scrum time, winning seven penalties and conceding one. The proof of their legitimacy at the set-piece was as important to the healing of the nation’s rugby psyche as the elevation of a Xhosa to the captaincy.

The front row has always represented the citadel of Afrikaner power in previous generations, whether it was ‘Boy’ Louw in the 1930s, Chris Koch and Jaap Bekker in the ’50s, Piet du Toit, ‘Mof’ Myburgh and Hannes Marais in the ’60s and ’70s, or the likes of Os du Randt and Cobus Visagie at the beginning of the professional era.

Os Du Randt acknowledges the crowd

Os du Randt on his way to the 2007 World Cup title. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)

Erasmus was making the most vital political point of all when he picked a starting front-row without an Afrikaner in sight. He was showing that players of colour could occupy the positions historically vital to success, and that they could do it with the same lustre and effectiveness as those who came before them. There was no devaluation of the jersey in the process.

The front row was where the myrtle and gold annihilation of England started, and it included two players of colour in Mbonambi at hooker and the legend that is 117-cap Mtawarira at loosehead prop. Nyakane was absent with an injury which ruled him out, otherwise he may well have started in Yokohama too.

Erasmus outlined his front-row strategy at the post-match presser:

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“It’s a spin-off of the way we’ve played with the 6-2 split… You keep your tight five fresher, especially with a six-day turnaround.

“Our front-rowers have all had, more or less, the same amount of minutes… England’s props have all had heavy loads, playing 60 or 70 minutes. Over seven weeks [of the World Cup] that takes its toll. They are not bad scrummagers, but our guys were fresher.”

England’s game started to come apart at the scrum, and the early departure of tighthead prop Kyle Sinckler in the third minute did not help. His replacement, Dan Cole, is a highly experienced operator, but Cole had to play the remaining 77 minutes without any prospect of relief.

The first scrum packed down immediately after Sinckler left the field for good, and the Beast and Bongi made their statement of intent:

The scrum takes about 13 seconds to complete, which means that any failure in concentration or technique will be magnified. The key moment arrives when the Beast manages to bring his left foot forward and create a perfect ‘bi-articular line’ approximately six seconds into the set-piece:

rugby world cup final scrum analysis

The basic aim for scrummaging forwards in biarticular theory, is to have their shoulders, knees and toes (and the biarticular muscles which cross the joints) all in a straight line, working towards the same result. Mtawarira has that perfect set-up, but Cole’s feet and knees have disappeared, way out of alignment with his shoulders. The second rower supporting him, Maro Itoje, has ridden over the top of his backside, while his Springbok counterpart can still apply his power behind the Beast.

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This scrum set the tone, and the Boks continued to target Cole even after Mbonambi was replaced by Malcolm Marx:

It is another long, 12-second scrum with Mtawarira and Marx determined to isolate the opposing replacement tighthead and force Jerome Garces to make a decision before the ball emerges:

dan cole malcolm marx scrum battle

Marx erupted through the bind between Cole and Jamie George, while the Beast worked his way through to join him in the same gap.

Another eight seconds that must have felt like a lifetime to Cole. At the critical moment, the Beast again brings his left foot up into the archetypal power position to force a concession from his opponent:

rugby world cup final scrum analysis

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Mtawarira’s shoulders, knees and toes are in a more harmonious alignment compared to those of Cole, and that means he is in a better position to move forward as the scrum develops.

The contest at the set-piece equalised dramatically when Joe Marler came off the bench to replace Mako Vunipola at loosehead in the 46th minute, but by then it was already too late.

One of the many spin-offs from scrum dominance is that the interpretive refereeing decisions tend to go in your favour:

In this case, Marler has clearly won his battle at the key biarticular moment, bringing his left foot up and establishing a strong, long bind on Vincent Koch:

rugby world cup final scrum analysis

But Garces was still refereeing the set-piece on perceptions established earlier in the match, and the penalty decision went South Africa’s way.

One of the other spin-offs is that all of your play deriving from the set-piece is under pressure because of the difficulties experienced at the source:

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With Cole again under pressure from the Beast, Billy Vunipola throws a hurried pass from the base and Owen Farrell is turned over at the first ruck by Kolisi. That is, in real terms, a scrum turnover, and it was as neat a capsule of the entire game as any other.

Summary
South Africa did not win the 2019 World Cup because they possessed outstandingly better skills, personnel or tactical acumen than any of the other semi-finalists.

Wales had beaten the Boks on the four previous meetings between the two and lost their semi-final by the breadth of a hair. Granted a full hand of fit players, they arguably would have won again.

New Zealand beat South Africa convincingly at the pool stage of the competition and thrashed Ireland in the quarters, while England routed all three of the other Rugby Championship sides en route to the final.

In a purely playing sense, all four had a legitimate one to the title of the world’s best team.

It was no coincidence that this was the first occasion that the winning nation lost a pool game during the tournament. The margins were that tight.

Ultimately, the Springboks triumphed because their sense of national identity and purpose beyond rugby was the strongest it had been since 1995. In 2019, they represented a rainbow of hope, arched over the fractured soul of a nation – just as they had done 24 years earlier.

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Springboks players after the national anthem

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

In Rassie Erasmus, they found a head coach who was able to achieve the near-impossible feat of making the political policy of racial transformation work in Springbok selection.

Under his stewardship, South Africa reinforced its traditional strengths in the scrum but they did it with a new racial mix, a perfect balance between the Afrikaner and the player of colour. It was only a pity that Trevor Nyakane was not around to be a part of the ultimate success.

The Bokke were led on to the field by a man of Xhosa ethnic origin, who started from nothing in his childhood in Zwide, and who never forgot that ‘nothing’ in his humble and dignified demeanour while ascending to the highest levels of the game.

With Siya Kolisi as captain, the Springboks could begin to believe that everything they did on the playing field truly engaged the world beyond rugby, and they became accustomed to living in that.

By the time of the World Cup final, the soft zephyr of belief had become an irresistible tsunami. As such, South Africa are worthy successors to the All Blacks, they are worthy champions of the world.