Springbok ruck play is broken and it is hard to understand how Allister Coetzee is addressing this on their End of Year tour to Europe.
Springbok Ruck Broken
The Springbok ruck performance has been a major area of concern throughout 2016. Contesting opposition ball has been no more than fair throughout the year. The Springboks were only beaten into last by the All Blacks in terms of turnovers won in the recent Rugby Championship (Courtesy www.vodacomrugby.co.za). This is not entirely surprising, as the All Blacks generally enjoyed the lion’s share of possession throughout the competition. That, along with a strong defense, meant that the New Zealanders could be very selective in when to contest for possession.
It is when the Springboks are in possession at ruck time that questions are asked of their rucking abilities. All too often they have lost possession when on the attack through poor protection of the ball. There have been examples of forwards either collapsing over the ball carrier, conceding penalties for sealing off, or the complete opposite case of not flooding the contact point, allowing opposition poachers the opportunity to contest possession.
Barbarians coach Robbie Deans pointed out after their match against the Springboks at Wembley on Saturday that the Springboks were simply not competitive at the breakdown and the Barbarians took advantage of that.
The Injury List
To be fair, Coetzee is facing an ever expanding injury list at open side flank. The players who are unavailable for selection reads like the who’s who of South African open side flanks. Marcel Coetzee, Francois Louw and Jaco Kriel are all out due to injury. Heinrich Brussouw and Schalk Burger are also out of contention due to club commitments.
The player who appeared to have the inside track to start at open side against England on Saturday was Bulls rookie Roelof Smit, but he tore a pectoral muscle during training on Monday and is out of the tour. His place in the squad has been taken by Free State Cheetahs specialist blindside flanker Uzair Cassiem. Western Province and Stormers utility loose forward Nizaam Carr has also been retained in the squad for the rest of the tour.
There is unfortunately no easy solution to this very important conundrum. Not protecting possession at ruck time or being able to clear it quickly places the attack under pressure. Not effectively contesting opposition possession puts defenses under pressure. As many pundits have correctly pointed out, this is not the sole responsibility of the open side flanker, but he is the player looked at when things are going wrong. As a unit, the Springbok approach to defending and attacking rucks appears to be unstructured, with little role definition or player responsibility evident.
When discussing this issue during Monday’s Press Conference, Coetzee admitted that he would have to get creative in selecting his loose forwards for the Test against England. It is going in to be interesting to see how he does this, given the resources he has available to him. The reality he faces is that he does not have a specialist open side flank in his squad. The closest he has is Carr, who has played this role for the Stormers with limited success. It is probably the safest option, but certainly not inspiring. The alternative is to go with two flankers who are more at home with the role of the blind side flank. The downside to this is that the Springboks would have a serious issue with pace around the park.
There are two questions that would bear answering and that would give us a clearer indication as to how the Springboks plan to be competitive at the breakdown on Saturday. Firstly, how creative is Coetzee thinking? Can we expect a real bolter, with a player out of position to fill the role of the open side flank or does Coetzee revert to the conservative option? Secondly, what work will be done with the rest of the forward pack during the week? Players need to clearly understand their roles at the breakdown both on defense and attack.
The breakdown has been a serious issue for the Springboks of late. If they get this aspect of their game right, they will give themselves a lot more options on attack, as well as give their suspect defense more time to align.
Here’s looking forward to seeing how Coetzee interprets the word “creative”.