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Rugby World Cup: Ireland must not allow South Africa to master time and space

Matt Williams: Ireland will have to get two scores ahead as early as possible if they are to beat the Springboks in Saturday’s crunch game in Pool B

Obsessing over time and space is not confined to astrophysicists. While rugby is not rocket science, time and space are at its core.

Understanding how time can be increased or reduced according to the amount of space that is provided or taken is the basis of the game.

Who said rugby players are dumb?

The Springboks are the current world champions because of their masterful ability to create extreme pressure that denies their opponent both space and time. If Ireland are to succeed against the might of the Springboks, they must conquer this time-and-space challenge.


The Boks have studied the science and concluded that the pressure generated by using the negative, which is destroying their opponent’s space and time, is far easier to implement than the positive, which is creating those two essential elements for attacking rugby.

The area between the attack and the defence is called the corridor of power. This is the territory where defenders and attackers battle over the space and time required by the attack to advance the ball. The team that dominates this space wins.

To master the corridor of power against the Springboks is the toughest assignment in world rugby. This is because South Africa enforces a suffocating defence that sucks time and space into rugby’s version of a black hole, where all attacking matter is destroyed.

The South Africans compress their players into a tight phalanx of defenders, who stand shoulder to shoulder, with minimum gaps between them.

This tight alignment leaves the enticement of 20 metres of empty area, with no defenders, out wide on the Boks’ flanks. The South Africans dangle this as a lure to trap the unwary attackers.

In their opening pool match, Scotland took this bait hook, line and sinker. The Scots’ error was toattempt to get the ball outside the Boks’ compressed defensive line by throwing long and slow passes, which is exactly what the Boks want from the attackers.

Steph Du Toit and Jesse Kriel sprang their ambush with rib-tickling tackles – and a few above the ribs – on Scottish attackers, who were standing still waiting for the long pass to arrive.

Against the South Africans it is easy to identify the space left by their compact defensive system but it is exceptionally hard to create the time with the ball in hand to exploit it.

This is all part of the South Africans highly effective philosophy of placing huge physical, mental and scoreboard pressure on their opponents by denying them time and space across every contest in the game.

In attack, the Boks remain focused on applying pressure. They will scrum for penalties, maul for tries, contest every tackle and aim to play the game within 40 metres of the Irish try line. The cross-field bombs that rained down with such horror against the Lions in 2021 will be a constant.

Then their seven fresh and huge replacement forwards will march on to the field, like an armoured tank division that has been held in reserve by Generals Erasmus and Nienaber. Their aim is to enter the battle at a pivotal moment to swing momentum South Africa’s way.

In selecting only one back on their bench and, as their replacement hooker, Deon Fourie, who predominantly plays as a flanker, Nienaber and Erasmus are rolling the dice. The rugby gods have a wicked sense of humour and their tendency is to hit you where you are weakest. Any injury or card across the South African back line or to their starting hooker Bongi Mbonambi and the Boks will find their gamble hitting them like a custard pie in the face.

Karma can leave a bad taste.

Ultimately, the South African plan is to score tries via their maul or kick multiple penalties and create high scoreboard pressure so that they feel secure enough to unleash their undeniably brilliant wide attack.

Cheslin Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse will be set free to use their staggering skills to kill off the match. As Napoleon said: “There is a moment in conflict that has an impact like no other. The one drop of water that makes the cup run over.” The Boks flying wingers are that drop.

This is the planned crescendo to South Africa’s ultimate pressure plan. It is not pretty, it is packed with negativity and a fanatical reluctance to utilise the magnificent attacking talents that unquestionably lie within the players who wear the famous green jersey.

To many, myself included, failing to give a platform to their amazingly talented backs is frustrating, confusing and disappointing. What is undeniable is that the plan is highly effective and delivers victories. In the eyes of the South Africans, the end justifies the means.

Now here’s the good news.

Last November Ireland proved they have a game plan that gets under the Springboks’ skin. Ireland’s running and kicking game create a style of play that places pressure back on the South Africans. A situation that the Boks find deeply uncomfortable.

The last three major defeats of South Africa were by Australia in August 2022, Ireland last November and New Zealand in this year’s Rugby Championship. They all have two factors in common.

The winning teams created LQB (lightning quick ball) early in the game. The rapid tempo of the attack denied the Boks’ defensive system the time and space to repel the attackers.

The Springboks were so unsettled that they conceded early tries. This created scoreboard pressure on the South Africans, who are deeply uncomfortable chasing a game because this situation nullifies their pressure game plan. Getting two scores ahead of the South Africans will be compulsory for success.

This contest is so very close that the finest of margins will determine the winner. Centimetres won can create success and seconds lost may produce defeat.

Ireland are capable and ready. This will be a belter.