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Opinion

Coach’s Corner Issue 27: Who is really the number one team in the world?

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23rd September, 2021
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Thanks to all those who contributed a question, or helped develop on at the call-out stage.

The Boks’ very existence as a unit is now clearly on the line. They are wounded and angry with themselves. Our across-the-ditch mates, who are possibly the better all-round team, have clear deficiencies. What are the key pillars on your game plan to bring down the AB’s? Rugby Geek
How much has the demise of the old Super Rugby format affected the Springboks and Los Pumas? Have the Springbok players, by not playing in against Australasian team, effectively stuck their heads in the sand?

– Spew_81

After another disappointing performance by the Nienaber mantra of “winning is more important than entertainment”. What can Nienaber change to either entertain or win next weekend?
– Biltong

Have you watched the post-match interview by Nienaber and Kolisi? What have you taken away from it?
– Wallabies_Larkham

When a team is touring and winless and sinking, is the best rebound path to make big changes in players and plan and shape, or actually shrink the game plan back to an even more minimalist version of fundamentals (set piece, tackling, and kicking)?
– Harry Jones

Are South Africa now in danger of being the new Australia, as we were under Cheika? A coach whose whinging rubbed off onto the players and just created a bad attitude of “we can do no wrong”?
– Hoy

Just looking at the two-dimensional paper-trail, there are several troubling stats for the world champions. Here is a selection from the Rugby Championship so far.

South Africa enjoy the highest percentage of possession in the tournament (54) but the lowest ball-in-play time.

The Springboks are the weakest team of the four in the final quarter, having scored only ten points, compared to 46 by New Zealand.

Six of their seven tries have originated from lineout, which has the best retention rate (89 per cent).

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South Africa’s goal-kicking success rate is a meagre 70 per cent off the tee.

The Springboks have lost the most own-ball rucks (6.7 per cent), and have the slowest average ruck speed at 4.1 seconds per breakdown – compared to New Zealand’s 3.9 per cent loss rate and 2.8 average ruck speed.

They have made only six clean breaks and eight offloads in four games, compared to 35 and 40 by the All Blacks.

It is not a rosy picture. With two more English referees for their final brace of matches against the All Blacks, South Africa are unlikely to receive any favours.

The combination of poor ruck stats, and the low ratio of offloads attempted suggests that they don’t dare to shift the ball through the hands too often, for fear of losing it to the most lethal counter-attacking side on the planet. Let’s add a third dimension at this point in proceedings.

This is a clear countering opportunity for the Boks, with a temporary three-on-one in plenty of space down the left-hand side of the field. But the timing of the pass (from captain Siya Kolisi) and the running line (from Willie le Roux) are so average that the ball is run tamely into touch. You cannot imagine this happening if the All Blacks had been presented with the same chance.

Therefore, South Africa has to ‘shrink’ back to what it knows best, and that means continued productivity from the lineout (both penalties and tries), an improved goal-kicking rate, and the hope that it has six better front-rowers in the scrum for the 80+ minutes that the match lasts.

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With that faltering final quarter effort in view, the Boks have to get ahead early on the scoreboard and stay ahead, by hook or by crook. Above all, they will need outstanding game-long defence. The following example will not do.

Of the two main defenders designated to the area around the tail, one starts in the centre of the lineout (Bongi Mbonambi), while the other (Franco Mostert) leaves it as the ball is delivered, to run towards the 10 channel! No wonder Samu Kerevi runs straight in between them to make the break.

I believe there is no question that South Africa were right to leave an ailing Super Rugby and head north however. It has won back their self-respect as a rugby nation by returning them to their roots of unyielding forward play, suffocating defence and a dominant kicking game. It has also won them a World Cup, and that fact will not change even if the World Rugby rankings do.

But it has become evident that the wagons were circled a little too readily after the first Test of the Lions series, and that has meant success at home, but failure away from it. If anything, South Africa’s playing style has contracted rather than expanded since the 2019 World Cup triumph.

There is also a sense that Rassie’s giant shadow falls heavily across Jacques Nienaber’s shoulders. Nienaber is engagingly forthright, almost too straight-up for his own good in the post-match pressers. There is a clear disconnect from Erasmus’ more strategic, Machiavellian approach. It would not be a surprise at all, to see Rassie assume full head coaching duties again for the end-of-year tour.

Is James O’Connor at fullback is a good fit against Argentina? To counter their speed, you could look at Petaia on the wing and Kellaway at 15. But to keep them penned in their half, Hodge at fullback?
– Peter K

How did you rate Hodge’s cameo versus Banks previous efforts? Hodge obviously dropped a few catches, but I also think he made some quality exit kicks and chases, and had a hand in the lead-up to Korobeite’s last two tries via a jackal and making a dominant tackle on De Allende that led to a knock on.
– Numpty

Can you please provide any insights into the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various fullback options we have given the way Rennie wants to play?
– Oblonsky’s Other Pun

Could Hodge be the fullback we always wanted but didn’t realise was right under our nose the whole time?
– JC

Given that Tom Banks is out injured, who would be the best replacement for the Wallabies? Hodge – who lacks confidence under the high ball? James O’Connor who has been out injured a long time? Kellaway who is new to the side? or a punt like Petaia?
– Otago Man.

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With Tom Banks out with a long-term injury, number 15 will inevitably come under the microscope in Wallaby selection debates for the remainder of 2021. Dave Rennie has already mentioned James O’Connor in dispatches, but I doubt he will be considered as a permanent option at the spot.

The choice will in all likelihood devolve to two options: Reece Hodge in a straight swap for Banks, or (more ambitiously) Jordan Petaia coming in to join Andrew Kellaway and Marika Koroibete in the first choice back three.

Whether Petaia starts at fullback or right wing (with Kellaway shifting to 15) in that arrangement is anyone’s guess. It could go either way.

Reece Hodge dropped four high kicks after entering the fray to replace Banks in the 28th minute. He clawed back most of the debits with the booming length of his kicking game. On occasion, the wins and the losses occurred in the same time-frame.

Hodge showed his lack of recent familiarity of the position by failing either to turn his body as the kicks descended (making a knock-on more likely), or receive the ball above his head in AFL style. However, in this instance he reclaims all of the lost territory by finding touch on halfway with a kick from his own goal-line.

The length of his boot meant that South Africa tended to lose most of the kicking duels as the second half unwound.

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Hodge’s exit comfortably outdistances the Springbok backfield, and in the kick tennis that followed, the outcome was a positive one for Australia: a lineout throw just inside the South Africa half.

Hodge also showed his back-line utility with a big upfield boot, and a strong chase and hit to follow, on Damian de Allende.

Given more time in the role, Reece Hodge’s size, boot and experience as an extra playmaker make him an attractive option for fullback. But Jordan Petaia has to feature somewhere in the 2023 back-line. Expect Dave Rennie to try out both men on the end-of-year tour.

Given the differing playing styles of South Africa and ABs how does that equate to the Wallabies’ recent results against these two nations? Is it simply mindset or were they heading toward this good form? How much influence did the Quade factor have?
– Richie

Can Quade Cooper and James O’Connor share the number 10 duties? We can preserve both of them and also have the flexibility of two options on a game-by-game basis depending on the opposition.
– Big A.

I would rather see one of the kids- Noah, Carter or one of the Waratah 10’s who can also play 12, or 15 play from the bench, or replace Quade if he’s injured. We need more than two mature tens. We need at least two good young ones. We would waste opportunity if we let James O’Connor and Quade ‘do it all’ until they cannot.
– Ken Catchpole’s Other Leg

Is Samu Kerevi the best 12 in the world right no? Closest player to him in my mind is Nonu, with his size and new-found distribution skills, and that’s praise I never thought I’d give.
– Choppies

The biggest single point of transformation in Wallaby play during the Rugby Championship has been achieved through a wholesale restructuring in midfield.

Quade Cooper has added stability, smarts and communication skills at 10, Len Ikitau has come on in leaps and bounds at centre, and Samu Kerevi has in short order established himself as the dominant midfield presence in the tournament.

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One of the happy Samu spin-offs has been the pressure he has taken off Marika Koroibete as the Wallaby power back.

Kerevi has by far the top carries in the competition (47) with Marika next on 33 – ranked first and second overall.

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Koroibete has the second highest number of tackle breaks (14) with Kerevi on 13 – ranked second and third overall.

Samu has six offloads, Marika has five – first and second overall.

On their own, they are formidable. Together, they are unstoppable.

Add Nic White to the mix, and the Wallabies have an impressive ‘brains trust’ with more-than-ample power at their disposal. Look at this three-phase sequence from lineout.

Samu Kerevi takes the ball at first receiver (leaving Quade Cooper free for second phase duties) and he beats the tackle of Siya Kolisi to set up a quick first ruck.

There is no question of Quade throwing the kind of long speculator which hurt the Wallabies so badly in their Bledisloe Cup series.

Quade opts for the simple and unassuming path, not the ego-boosting highlight reel. More quick ruck ball allows White find a hole in the Springbok backfield with the kick.

The theme was echoed for Australia’s third try of the game. Firstly, Samu struggles forward from first receiver from a standing start, then Cooper folds willingly into the second ruck knowing that the opportunity lies on the other side of the field. Finally, it is a call from Kerevi that determines the direction of the scoring phase.

On defence, Quade has given up the head-high tackle in favour of the low chop.

Cooper stops de Allende in his tracks, and when South Africa stuff up on second phase, he is there at the epicentre of a winning counter-ruck. The commitment to the dirty, unseen work is complete and unstinting.

It was Cooper’s chop tackle on Makazole Mapimpi which created the turnover opportunity for Reece Hodge that led to the decisive try of the game.

As always, the ‘chop’ means that the tackle occurs closer to the defensive support players than it does to the attacking cleanout, and Hodge gratefully picks up the pieces. Game, set and match Australia.

A big thank-you to all!

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