“Offence sells tickets. Defence wins championships.”
So said the legendary Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant, coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide in American college football.
That axiom received further reinforcement at this year’s World Cup in Japan. South Africa won the tournament on the back of a defence that conceded only two tries in the three knockout games against Japan, Wales and England, and none at all in the final itself.
It was an area of Australian weakness in the Michael Cheika era.
Under the auspices of Nathan Grey, the Wallabies gave up, on average, 35 points and over five tries per game to their closest rivals across the Tasman.
At the World Cup, in the two matches that really mattered (against Wales in the group and England in the quarter-final) they still allowed that same 35-point average.
Grey took too long to abandon the ever-shifting ‘musical chairs’ pattern with too many players required to operate in too many different roles – a dedicated openside winger on both sides of the field, the number 10 in the tramlines at lineout, Michael Hooper defending the 10 channel, and the number 9 forced to defend at fullback in midfield. The list went on.
It looks very much like the new Australian head coach, Dave Rennie, will try to bring his defence coach from the Glasgow Warriors and Scotland, Matt Taylor, into the Wallaby fold with him.
Taylor is a Scottish-Australian hybrid. His parents are from Fife and as a player he represented both the Edinburgh and Borders regional teams and was capped by Scotland ‘A’ in the 2001-2002 season.
Flip the coin over, and you discover a Brisbanite who played for the Queensland age-group sides and was the defensive coach for Ewen McKenzie’s Super Rugby champion Reds back in 2011.
The crossover can work extremely well, and was key to the success of Rassie Erasmus’ Springboks in 2019. When Erasmus first took on the role in 2018, he brought back two coaches who had worked with him at Munster in Ireland – defence specialist Jacques Nienaber and Welsh strength and conditioning guru Aled Walters. Earlier this year, he returned to Ireland to poach ex-Munster fullback Felix Jones as a defensive consultant.
As former Munster CEO Garrett Fitzgerald explained to the Irish Examiner, “he [Erasmus] immediately knew what he had on his hands with Aled and with Felix”.
“We knew as well, they were both in our long-term plans but today in pro sport, plans are great but they don’t always happen. Jacques had come with Rassie, they’d been friendly for years, met in the military service in South Africa.
“When Rassie notified us that he was leaving, our wish was that Jacques would stay on and be the new head coach in time. But I think they were always going to work together.”
Erasmus first met and struck up a friendship with Nienaber in the army, and the pair stuck together through coaching stints in the Free State, on the Cape and with Munster. Nienaber started as a physiotherapist and then moved into conditioning work before morphing into a defence coach.
Now Nienaber is being primed to replace his mate now he’s moved upstairs to become director of rugby in South Africa.
As veteran Bokke number 8 Duane Vermeulen said recently, “Jacques is a fantastic person. When I first met him, he was a physiotherapist and now he is the defence coach. I don’t know who is going to take over, but he would be a good replacement.”
Nienaber is also a good friend of Shaun Edwards, the Welsh (and now French) national defence coach, and credits him with much of his evolution as a defensive expert. One way or another, a lot of northern hemisphere experience and knowledge has come back home to South Africa, just as it will return to Australia in 2020.
Nienaber’s defensive structure has a shape which will be familiar to keen followers of northern hemisphere rugby. The Kiwi method of spreading defenders across the full width of the park, which tends also to be Matt Taylor’s preference, is not for him.
When he first took over the reins, South Africa’s defence in the wide channels was a mess – witness the three tries conceded in the first 17 minutes of Rassie’s first game in charge in Johannesburg:
Now let’s take a look at how matters had improved in the following 18 months, via a key defensive sequence which occurred midway through the first half of the Rugby World Cup final. It was the first time England had a decent chance to attack in the game.
The passage of play began with a lineout near the Springbok 22:
England’s first gambit is trademark Eddie Jones: a sneaky short-side switch off a lineout, designed to set Johnny May up against some lumbering Springbok tight forwards still puffing from the maul. Halfback Faf de Klerk sees it and shuts it down comprehensively, heaving May back to whence he came.
One short phase later, Nienaber’s defence has taken on its characteristic shape:
As in 2018, the shape is still very compact, with all of the in-line defenders occupying no more than half the overall width of the field. The openside winger (Makazole Mapimpi) has his shoulders squared in towards the touchline and is preparing to drive infield if play comes out to his side, while Willie le Roux (out of shot behind him) will have to work hard out of the backfield to shut the door on the widest attacker.
South Africa’s main objective is to outnumber England in close contact if the attack comes off 9, and procure a two-on-one in the tackle:
When Tom Curry receives the ball from Ben Youngs, he is scythed low by Tendai Mtawarira, then knocked on to his back by Siya Kolisi. No gain.
It turns out that Curry’s run was a prelude to another bit of Eddie Jones misdirection wizardry. Youngs has his feet and passing preparation shaped right, but at the last moment he switches play back to the left.
I have little doubt this move would have worked against the 2018 Springboks, but times have moved on, and the presence of de Klerk – the best defensive halfback in the southern hemisphere – is key to their reading of the situation.
There is no attempt to cover width, and de Klerk does not try to mark the last attacker (May) but shoots up on the player inside him (Billy Vunipola) to take man and ball with a try-saving tackle.
A couple of phases later, England tried their luck on the opposite edge:
With Mapimpi jamming in well inside the 15-metre line and le Roux expected to pick up any attackers outside him from his wide positioning in the backfield, the Springbok defence is stretched to its absolute limit. There is no room for error at all:
If Elliott Daly can fade on to the outside of Mapimpi, it will probably be curtains for South Africa, but the winger hangs on for grim death and brings his man down.
The Springboks’ most searching defensive test was still yet to come:
Billy Vunipola gets the offload away to his brother Mako in the two-man tackle, while Springbok hooker Bongi Mbonambi is down injured in back play.
Suddenly the Bokke are looking very thin on defence, with players running back towards their own goalline and de Klerk having to skip all the way around Mbonambi in order to influence the play:
Somehow de Klerk gets back to George Ford, and Cheslin Kolbe comes up to close down Courtney Lawes with two men spare outside him. Kolbe ends up giving up the penalty, but that is very acceptable triage. It is a scenario from which South Africa would have surely conceded five points – or seven – back in 2018.
When Rassie Erasmus returned from Ireland to South Africa two years before the World Cup in Japan, he did not come back alone. He returned with his long-time friend, physio and converted defence specialist Jacques Nienaber.
He came back bearing other gifts, too: a Welsh strength and conditioning coach, and a former Munster and Ireland fullback. All had a say in South Africa’s World Cup success.
When Dave Rennie takes up the Wallaby coaching reins, he will come armed with his own team of support staff: attack coach Scott Wisemantel, fresh from his stint with England and Eddie Jones, and Matt Taylor, the Aussie with tartan in his veins.
Taylor’s role in building a new defensive system with the Wallabies, and a new defensive understanding in Australian professional rugby as a whole, will be vital given the experience of Nathan Grey over the past four years. Australia cannot afford to be giving up 35 points per game in 2020, or Dave Rennie’s reign may be cut uncomfortably short.
Does Matt Taylor have what it takes to repeat Nienaber’s success? Only time will tell.