Springbok midfield’s ability must be tested well behind their gain line
Joe Schmidt’s men braced for the inevitable massive physical challenge the Boks represent
Victor Matfield: one of the best lineout operators the world has ever seen. Photograph:Billy Stickland/Inpho
Two weeks ago I spoke of all things Bakkies Botha. Tomorrow he’s back, but before his arrival, we can feast on the brilliance contained within both number five jerseys: Victor Matfield and Paul O’Connell. Yes there’s evolving ambition in the Springboks but at their prime, they are intelligent, physical and brutish. O’Connell is one who is equal to the task.
Considering the almighty clash up front (Australia made 252 tackles against the Boks; Ireland’s two match total versus England plus France was 255) there’s merit to including an extra bench forward such as Dominic Ryan. And as the starting five Irish outside backs, plus Ian Madigan, can play 14 different positions there’s a unique flexibility should injuries occur.
The baby Bok outhalf Handre Pollard loves the gainline and will attack it where a very early Irish fringe defensive set must choke him to death. For all their ambitious, attacking development, the Springboks can be imprecise in midfield and are vulnerable to an onrushing, aggressive Irish defence.
I expect Les Kiss to vary Ireland’s defence hugely but the Springbok midfield’s ability must be tested well behind their gain line. As they often screen the first receiver (who is deep), their outside backs can be even more tested. Add a little lack of passing crispness and the Irish can get at them up to ten metres behind the gainline, placing our backrow incounter rucking steal positions for the turnover. Enormous physique Due to their enormous physique, there’s a confidence to carry into contact; especially from inside their own 22 even where Irish defensive numbers are equal or superior.
Where once they kicked away possession, now the Springboks look to run from deep, especially off soft turnovers. Springbok fullback Willie Roux is the real danger man here, adding pace, point of attack and a clever kicking game. They also tend to attack, one out, one up where the likes of Bismarck du Plessis carries very high into contact, providing a choke target. Although a little primitive, this will create enormous fatigue within the Irish front five defence.
Defensively, the Springboks can flatter to deceive with their pillar fringe defence at times a little too static coming off the line. Here’s where Joe Schmidt may build to attack, ultimately unlocking some Springbok fatties with Conor Murray getting his big men into play.
But when is the right time to strike the Springboks? Too early in the phases and the Springbok upper body strength risks Irish turnovers.
A deft offload pre-contact from a forward to a hard-running big man such as Seán Cronin, Tommy Bowe or Simon Zebo would be great to unlock the Springbok defence. O’Connell receiving flat, with Jack McGrath offering a hard line in mid field has potential. Although wearing 12, Jean de Villiers often defends at outside centre. But the damage can be done inside him especially when Ireland make a linebreak.
The follow up play and rewind must be exact in exposing the Springbok trailing defence. But if Ireland can get to fifth phase going forward (without Cian Healy or Seán O’Brien), they have a chance.
Off defensive lineouts the Springbok jumpers rarely dip down into their jump, saving vital time in getting airborne. They typically follow their man; with hooker du Plessis (a monster) at the front lifting number seven Oupa Mohoje, freeing up “the Beast” – Tendai Mtawarira – to pod on Eben Etzebeth with number eight Duane Vermeulen.
This leaves tighhead Jannie du Plessis at the tail, with one of the best lineout operators the world has ever seen, Matfield, in front of him. With three John Hayes-type lifters in the Boks’ pack, Irish targets are limited.
Of course they have many variations on their defence such as placing Etzebeth on his own at the front, prioritising Matfield with a huge lifting pod that covers 75 per cent of the lineout space. Yes, he is that good at reading attacking lineout intentions and crucially in getting across the ground and into the air to challenge. The knock-on effect on Jared Payne remains to be seen. Accurate delivery Lineouts (and turnovers) provide the Boks’ best attacking backline platform. Each Springbok pod simply relies on hooker du Plessis to hit the tiniest of spaces for them to step into where they rely heavily on the trinity of Etzebeth, Matfield and Vermeulen podding with tiny movements but real pace into the air and a very accurate delivery.
In pairing their tall men Etzebeth and Matfield with Jannie du Plessis there are three distinct pods available. But Matfield rarely calls the ball on himself so look out for the man behind him who will be the target. Their lineout maul can be a little too high and not as powerfully focused on the point to arrow head dynamically through the defensive maul.
As the Springboks rarely knock the ball on there’ll be fewer scrums, hence a far-from-fit Mike Ross may get through. However, less scrums does not reduce their importance.
The Springbok backrow, probably due to their front five’s physical size, tend to pop their heads and quit scrummaging where Ireland can employ the old-fashioned secondary drive for penalties. That said their defensive scrum height, dip and power lift with a left hand turn is awesome.
Ross will need the full Ireland pack behind him especially as the ‘Beast’ dips his knees, then his shoulders, keeping a high left arm high, depowering tight head before violently lifting and getting outside to create a left hand wheel powering through. Mtawarira is far more square, level and inactive on his own ball.
Finally French referee Romain Poite has to be an advantage with around 170 or so breakdowns. Surely by now we know what he thinks? PS: Best of luck to IRUPA and the rugby legends honouring one of rugby’s greats in the Guinness Storehouse tonight. Youtube; Joost van der Westhuizen: A Life of Two Halves. firstname.lastname@example.org