Springboks have added brains to traditional brawn

Springbok power was in full force against Italy, confirming that the South Africans’ strength, clever play and solid bench make them one of the toughest teams to stop at the World Cup.

The media tribune at Shizuoka Stadium sits so high in the stands of the magnificent arena that it provides almost a sense of detachment from what is happening below as tiny figures scramble across the pitch in organised chaos.

But when the first “big hit” was delivered by a South African player on a stricken Italian in Friday’s comprehensive 49-3 Rugby World Cup Pool B victory for the Springboks, the impact felt just as jarring as for those at ground level, such was the ferocity with which it was delivered.

Muscle on muscle, bone on bone, it was at times gruesome theatre as the Boks tamed their opponent from the outset with the kind of physicality that had Italy coach Conor O’Shea calling them arguably the most powerful side ever to play the game.

There are several ways to win a rugby match – with sleight of hand and skill, via the kicking boot and lastly through brute force, pummeling your opponent into submission with the ferocity of your attack and defence.

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South Africa use all three to a degree, but the platform to shine for their dazzling backs, the likes of wings Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi, and livewire centre Lukhanyo Am, is provided by their big men up front through an ultra-aggressive, but legal, style.

Canada will be next to face this onslaught in Kobe on Tuesday 8 October, where victory will assure the Boks of a quarterfinal place at the World Cup and confirm their status as one of the tournament favourites. What the North American side will find most difficult to cope with is the strength of their opponents, especially the way that power is controlled and channeled into a collective game-plan, like 15 individuals clad in green becoming one Incredible Hulk.    

Bok power 

If you have not seen this Bok team play live, because television can never really do it justice, it is difficult to explain the intensity of their effort. At the Shizuoka Stadium their ball carrying and tackling initially drew gasps from the crowd and then, eventually, cheers.

Italy had spoken before the game about how they would front-up physically, challenging the mighty Bok forward pack. But talk is cheap, and in the end they were bullied to the point where their only way to retaliate was to commit foul play. South African rugby has long been known for its physicality, though often in the past it has been misused and abused.

But this Class of 2019 has focused aggression, huge intensity, work-rate, and the depth off the bench to be able to keep up the physical effort for 80 minutes. O’Shea played three Tests against the Boks as a fullback for Ireland and so understands the challenge they bring. This World Cup squad, he believes, is their most powerful yet.

“I wouldn’t want to stand in front of them because they are massive. They are powerful and we knew that and knew it was coming, and that they have x-factor players at the back,” O’Shea told reporters.

“When that power gets on the front foot, it is wave after wave. They are very structured so you know what they are going to do. They are one of the most powerful sides I have ever seen on a rugby pitch. They are formidable and they will be very difficult to stop [at the World Cup].”

It would be fair to say that past Bok sides have been all brawn and little brain, but this group has turned that stereotype on its head with clever, controlled play under the leadership of captain Siya Kolisi.

He says the team knows how to play to their strengths and take great enjoyment from outmuscling their opponents.

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“To see a guy like Beast [Tendai Mtawarira] so keen to scrum every penalty we got, and how crazy he goes, it really inspires us as a team,” Kolisi says. “That’s all the coach asks us for, intensity and work rate, and that’s all we had to do. We will work on attack [play] but we know we are really good at being physical. It doesn’t matter if it’s ugly or not, so long as we can get over the line.”

Mtawarira knows that if South Africa are to win the World Cup, it will be through their forwards and the muscle they bring to provide space for the backs to play.

“The one thing we put a lot of energy into is our set-piece,” he said. “The backs did their bit [against Italy] and we’ll go on from this and get better. You still have to scrum and maul to win a World Cup.”

Strong bench 

What Bok coach Rassie Erasmus has done well since taking over at the start of 2018 is to develop a full squad of 31 players that can interchange with some ease, especially among the forwards. The loss of prop Trevor Nyakane to a calf injury was a blow, but in Thomas du Toit they have an adequate replacement.

Whether Mtawarira or Steven Kitshoff starts at tight-head prop is really neither here nor there, as one will come off the bench to provide the same intensity and aggression as the man he replaces. They have four excellent locks, and speed, mobility and aggression in the back-row depending on how they want to play.

Erasmus was not entirely happy with the skills on display against Italy, but acknowledged that it was the forward game that provided the handsome victory, and it will be their pack that will take them to World Cup glory.

“I thought tactically and technically there were definitely some mistakes but the way the guys physically pitched is what we wanted to see,” he said. “If we as South Africans want to go all the way, that’s something that we need in our game. 

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“We felt that in the previous Tests we’ve played this year, it wasn’t really consistent. I thought in this specific Test match, our physicality – which is one of our strengths – was very consistent throughout the game, and I am really proud about that. We have a certain style that we play. We have certain types of players and we play to our strengths.”

Erasmus does talk about his first-choice team and his fringe selection, the latter one which will likely face Canada. But you do not win a World Cup with 23 players, it takes an entire squad and what the side that features on Tuesday will be expected to display is that the intensity does not drop no matter who is selected.

Especially as it is not just in defence where the power game comes to the fore, but on attack also.

Canada prop Jake Ilnicki is all too aware of the challenge facing his side after their 63-0 loss to New Zealand on Wednesday.

“The South Africa game will be another big challenge. It doesn’t get any easier for us. It’s going to be another big bunch of boys out there,” he said, before adding that the only way to challenge the physicality of their opponents was to confront them head-on. “Going into this game, we’re going to have a similar mindset of not thinking that we can’t play with South Africa. We’ve just got to group together and prepare well.”

As Italy found out to their tremendous cost, that is much easier said than done.

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