An outsider’s assessment of South Africa’s World Cup chances

With the 2022 season all but behind us, we are left with the run to the 2023 Rugby World Cup once everyone reports back for duty in 2023.

For perhaps the first time in RWC history the tournament will begin with up to six sides having very real claims to win it, and with the current top four sides all on one side of the draw, the outlook is genuinely uncertain.

I have spent what seems an inordinate amount of time pulling apart the poorer aspects of the All Blacks game plan in 2022 and thought a browse through the progress of current World Cup holders South Africa might be interesting in contrast.

A quick results scene-setter: South Africa have lost ten games in the last two years, equaling the worst run of results over two years by any World Cup holder, with England at Twickenham still to come. With their recent record against Ireland, France, New Zealand, Australia and England at a reported 27 per cent, you can see where the slide from No. 1 in the world ranking, down to fourth, has come from.

There are some serious changes in the game plan from the coaching team over the last couple of years that are worth a look.

Let’s start with the positives.

South Africa now have some serious pace weapons in the back three and are prepared to use them more regularly. In an era of kicking in play for distance, South Africa are increasingly likely to run the back, Willie le Roux will take the distributor role in the middle of the park and try to release the genuine strike weapons they have on either side.

The question is: does this addition complement their more traditional style, or is it in fact walking into the trap of overplaying in the wrong parts of the park, as Ian Foster’s All Blacks had done until the recent strategy changes?

It was rare for the 2019 Springboks to lose the turnover count in any game. Indeed they not only consistently led this critical count but did so by an average of some 40 per cent. However, across 2022 this very real platform of Springboks rugby has become negative as often as it is positive, and there have been some serious counts against them.

A quick disclaimer here on the numbers.

I have used nine games from 2019, excluding the World Cup minnows, and have used 11 games from 2022. I would argue that hiding behind the stat swings that games against the lower ranked sides provide would not be addressing the issues in how they are now playing.

In fact all of the things that would be regarded as givens for a South African side are on the turn. They are conceding more penalties – in fact four times as many in matches this year, more than their highest count in 2019 – they kick less, their tackle rate is dropping, average tries scored are down and average tries conceded against the good sides are way up, all of which coincides with the dramatic flip in the turnover stats.

South Africa's Frans Steyn is tackled by England's Henry Slade

(Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

It’s almost a mirror of how the key stats began to turn against the All Blacks when they played way too much from hand from 2018 onwards, and it’s a bad cul-de-sac to go down.

The forwards are an interesting study. No-one is going to deny the physical effort and focus that a Springboks No. 8 brings to every match. They are still all sorts of a handful in the tight stuff. But the days of scrums for penalties, kicks for the line and mauls for tries are now seriously over for this group when faced with the better sides.

The tight five and their bench replacements will always keep the side in contests, but I have serious concerns about the structure of the loose forwards and how they are used.

Over the years, I have posited that the reason that the All Blacks have had such an outstanding record against the Republic is that they have had the ball and ruck speed to be able to peel away those loosies from the pack and isolate and attack the tight five in the open.

Both Argentina and Australia recently showed the same ability to expose those ruck edges.

Australia going straight through the middle for a try from 1:27 on the following clip.

And Argentina does something remarkably similar from 4:32 on this clip.

South Africa needed a rebuild in the loosies after the World Cup and they were late, spending too much time trying to find a way for Duane Vermeulen to fit back in.

They then settled on a like-for-like replacement, choosing to continue having the dual role of lock-blindside and leaving way too much of the actual traditional loose forward work to captain Siya Kolisi, who while still turning some quality performances, finished the Rugby Championship with a tackle rate of 80 per cent for the year to date and is just not getting his hands on the ball in transition nearly enough.

The structure of the South African loose forwards does not have enough lateral defense speed to contain the way good sides are now playing and their red zone conversion issues reflect the lack of diversity in the trio when compared to, for example, Ireland, France and New Zealand, who have quicker trios, with as much size and are a greater threat both sides of the ball.

Without going through all three loose forward groups, Gregory Alldritt, Ardie Savea and Caelan Doris are good examples of the differences in skill sets now being brought to the top level. It is a game reality that cards are going to take teams down to 14 on a regular basis, and this, combined with a concerted refereeing effort to speed the game up, requires greater lateral speed in the loose forward trio than South Africa are currently putting out.

Rory Arnold of the Wallabies competes in a maul during The Rugby Championship match between the Australia Wallabies and South Africa Springboks at Allianz Stadium on September 03, 2022 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

The first stat I look at every week is total meters carried by the loose forwards, as it so often seems to be an excellent indicator of outcomes. In the losses to Ireland, France and New Zealand the average negative for South Africa averaged out at approx 30 meters per game.

If Sam Cane spent the first part of his season trying to cover the shortfalls in the tight aspects of his own loose forwards, then captain Kolisi found himself stuck between two stools trying to be the transition manager in a side where he was getting little help out of Nos. 6 and 8. It’s worth noting that at the end of the Rugby Championship Cane had thrown 39 passes in true linkman fashion, while Kolisi had distributed 11.

It’s almost like watching a North American football team. There is a forward (defence) aspect and an improving wide back division (offense), both of excellent quality, but in the dynamic game that is rugby union, especially today’s iteration, there is a need to constantly knit them both together, and the loose forward issues are compounded by a lack of creativity in the Nos. 9 and 10 slots.

While the tight five and midfield remain world-class and the back three are becoming a real strike weapon combination, that gap between Nos. 6 and 10 looks like being an anchor that is going to drag on higher level performance.

They have a plethora of halfbacks who appear to be directed to largely play the same – watching Jaden Hendrikse shovel the ball out in a similar fashion to the glacial Conor Murray in the Ireland match was disappointing – and the commitment to attack in the wider channels has not been backed up with the development of individuals or a game plan that can run this effectively from the No. 10 slot despite there being some serious talent available. One would not expect that the return of Handre Pollard is going to be the required solution.

The lack of creativity close to the forward pack is holding this South African side back from being able to dominate over longer periods and thus generate repeat score momentum that helps to put games away with red zone efficiency. This inability is demonstrably keeping sides in the game against South Africa deep into the second stanza, making too many matches a late-game lottery.

Is the development of the wider attacking game a coaching recognition of the reduction in the points-scoring effectiveness of the pack, or is the leveling off of the pack performance related to a refocus of effort into the backs? And is there time between now and the World Cup to make this work seamlessly?

South Africa will no doubt be there or thereabouts at the final stages of the 2023 Rugby World Cup. How much of a threat they are to the big show may be will depend on getting contributions between blindside flanker and first five-eighth into good order and getting those marginal match-deciding statistics to swing back in their favour.

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