PARIS (AP) — Playing pretty rugby has never been high on the Springboks’ agenda, especially when it comes to the business of winning a World Cup in tense knockout games.
South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus still claimed something of an evolution for the defending champions on Monday after a scintillating victory over host France in an ultra-close quarterfinal kept the Boks in with a chance of retaining the title, and getting their country’s name etched on the trophy for a record fourth time.
The Springboks are unlikely to ever go too far from the power game that has always defined them, but Erasmus and coach Jacques Nienaber have spoken often this year about finding another method of attack to complement — and not replace — South Africa’s big pack of forwards. That’s meant more backline tries.
The primary motivation for that is, of course, winning. Aesthetics are of little consequence.
“As a team we don’t want to be this wonderful rugby playing team that the whole world loves,” Erasmus said. “But we do want to score tries.”
The Springboks ground to the 2019 title with a massive focus on scrummaging, lineout mauls and tactical kicking. The South African brains trust of Erasmus and Nienaber concluded that was 2019 rugby and few teams wouldn’t know what South Africa would bring. How to stay a step ahead has largely revolved around putting faith in playmaking flyhalf Manie Libbok to release a backline with razor-sharp wings in Cheslin Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse a little more often.
They were both on the scoresheet against France as the first three of South Africa’s four tries were scored by backs, even if they were more well-timed counter-punches than free-flowing attacking moves.
Backs scored 66% of South Africa tries at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The speedsters have 76% of their tries at this World Cup so far. It’s not a massive shift, but a significant tweak.
Erasmus said the change came a year ago when South Africa lost 30-26 to France in an epic physical battle. France worked out the Springboks, but Erasmus also said they found referees were finding it much harder to officiate the Boks’ constant “close-contact work.”
“We had to adapt. Also to try and score tries through more open, fluent, running rugby. And you could see in our try-scoring tally there’s a lot scored by our backs, more than our forwards,” Erasmus said.
“If you only rely on a certain aspect of the game which is very tough for the referee to referee and he gets two (decisions) wrong but you are only relying on those three or four of five opportunities that you get, 50% of your opportunities are gone. But if you fire shots in open play, general play from the top of lineouts or counterattack, it’s clearer decisions for the referee and easier to make.”
South Africa’s forwards ground down England in the 2019 final in Japan before adding the coup de grace with two tries out wide. The English are the semifinal opponents next weekend in France, and have noticed that new willingness for South Africa to go wide, and go at any time.
“(With) South Africa, those threats are all across the field,” England attack coach Richard Wigglesworth said. “But (Manie) Libbok and their outside backs . . . incredible ball movement, talented runners, they get the ball into space early and let those guys do the damage.”
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