CAPE TOWN – The Springboks’ World Cup journey will rely heavily on their “pouncers”.
As always, one of the most important factors in the World Cup is going to be defence.
In South Africa’s 41-7 warm-up win against Japan on Friday, it was an area the Boks used to good effect as they put the hosts under pressure and forced them into errors.
The Boks’ linespeed - something that worked well during the Rugby Championship as well - was a key factor in their friendly result, while they also scrambled well to keep Japan, who made their intentions of playing a high-tempo game and spreading the ball clear right from the start, in check.
The fact that they had a tackle completion rate of 90% also showed the Boks’ effort without the ball, and during their Rugby Championship-winning campaign, their defence was, for the most part, also one of the biggest positives.
And while it will have a big role to play in Japan as well, another one will be how the Boks pounce on opposition mistakes and use their counter-attacking opportunities. More specifically, quick reaction and an always-open eye for an opportunity, and then the ability to capitalise on it - as we’ve seen from the likes of Cheslin Kolbe and Herschel Jantjies - could prove the difference somewhere along the way in Japan.
In the warm-up game, although it wasn’t a perfect tactical kicking performance from halfbacks Handre Pollard and Faf de Klerk, the Boks did get good return from their contestable kicks and got some tries to prove it.
It was clear that the plan was to put Japan under pressure under the high ball, but De Klerk’s box kicks, in particular, bordered on predictable and inaccurate at times, while Pollard also failed to find touch a few times and missed two pretty standard conversions.
Some of the Boks’ tries came from contestable-kick turnovers. Left wing Makazole Mapimpi got a hat-trick, Kolbe a brace and replacement scrumhalf Jantjies a try of his own. Two of those six tries came after Kolbe intercepted a pass and Jantjies scooped the ball up after the Brave Blossoms knocked it on. And it’s exactly those kind of opportunistic scores that should be a big factor for the Boks going forward, by their outside backs especially.
During the Rugby Championship, it was the always-ready-to-pounce attitude of Jantjies and Kolbe in particular that not only sparked some excitement, but also bagged a few tries. And it’s the Boks’ game-reading ability and lightning-quick reaction - whether it’s from Kolbe, Jantjies, Mapimpi, Willie le Roux or whoever else - that could prove the difference in a game or two.
On Friday again, with the Japanese keen on moving the ball wide, Kolbe of course spotted that, and the fact that he positioned himself flat enabled him to get his hands on the ball quickly before sprinting to the tryline.
But those “pouncers” are going to be even more vital when an opportunity cannot be anticipated - like when Jantjies quickly picked up a loose ball before making himself scarce and heading for the whitewash.
Sure, there are many things that will play a role in how the Boks’ World Cup campaign plays out. How they handle those testing conditions, their defence, the use of the bench - especially in that humidity, their tactical approach, and so you can go on and on.
But how they pounce, how they snatch up every opportunity that comes their way will be another one, after all, they’ve sure got the personnel to do it.@WynonaLouw