Brian O’Driscoll said after the 3rd New Zealand/Ireland test match that speed at the ruck is what matters most and that the scoreboard reflect (60-0 for the All Blacks) in essence what happened at the breakdowns.
McCaw on questioned what did the AB’s rectify, after the second test, to produce the marked improvement in the All Blacks game said: “We kept our line better and were more successful (as compared to the second test) to create forward momentum at the rucks”.
What both of them are saying is that tactics and counter measures at the tackle ball are what the modern game is all about. These statements (by McCaw and O’Driscoll) summarises, for me, the last three weeks of test rugby. Here in brief are my thoughts on the test matches played so far this year in the Southern hemisphere.
All Blacks versus Ireland
After absolute dominance at the breakdowns and a run-away victory by the All Blacks in the 1st test the Irish came-up with some very innovative and interesting counter measures and just missed out on an upset 107 years in the making. The counter measures were 1) to rush-up in defence and 2) to hold the ball carrier upright and 3) to position themselves between the ball carrier and his support. This not only slowed down the NZ ball but more importantly it prevented them from establishing any ascendency –an essential part of the NZ game- in the midfield.
The way New Zealand countered this in the third test was quite fascinating and produced a victory of surprising proportions. The counter measures were to hit contact faster and with lower body position carrying the ball on the hip so that the tackler could not wrap the ball up. The ball on the hip and lower body position also forced the supporting cavalry to enter the collisions with lower body positions allowing them to get the ball on the ground and ruck the Irish –positioning themselves between the ball carrier and his support- off the ball. The end result was more speed, precision and control at the tackle ball.
South Africa versus England
England’s tactic in the first two test matches was to attack the collisions with numbers and to blow the Springboks of the ball. It worked for most part in the first half of the 1st test. The Springboks identified what was going on and rectified it in the second half of the 1st test. They improved on that in 2nd test and totally dominated that test match. England was able to come back in the 2nd test match due to South Africa dropping the intensity of their effort at the ruck the result of a combination of replacements and running out of steam.
In the 2nd test Willem Alberts could punch holes because he got fast ball and the England team were still trying to ruck us off the ball by committing numbers at the rucks. In the 3rd test they changed this tactic; they stopped trying to ruck the Springboks off the ball but focussed instead on rushing-up in defence and tackling the first receiver behind the advantage line. This was an extremely effective tactic and even though we recycled pretty well we were unable to establish ascendency at the tackle ball. What we needed in this circumstance were halfbacks that could drop runners into the gap (like Genia and Cruden) or vary their game. Hougaard and Morné Steyn’s inability to do just that (create play) was glaringly obvious to the extent that Meyer subbed Hougaard after 50 minutes. Pienaar made an immediate difference because he varies his game more and manage his attacking runners with more authority. It was Pienaar who produced our only try with an outstanding pass to JP Pietersen and I would venture that we would not have scored that try if Pienaar was not on the field.
Australia vs Wales
This series evidenced two teams with very similar styles and very little variation regarding collision area tactics across the three test matches hence very even contests with less tries. Flap/flap stuff I like to call it like a paper bag in the wind against a fence. The emphasis being on ‘our pilfer is better than yours.’
The playmaking ability of Genia was ultimately the difference but Genia’s effectiveness was greatly reduced by mostly static ball at the rucks and the absence of Quade Cooper. Cooper’s presence makes Genia more effective because the defence have to watch both of them which is not the case with Barnes playing.
This brings us to the importance of having playmakers in the halfback positions. With the collisions so fiercely contested it is paramount that you have players and combos in the key positions of 8, 9, 10 and 12. The Cruden/SBW combo made a massive difference in the 3rd test between NZ and Ireland. Cruden’s ability to draw the defence and offload to SBW -on an angled run- produced almost all the All Black tries in the first 20 minutes of that test match. This was especially potent against the Irish rush-up defensive system and something that was a big problem in South Africa’s 3rd test match against England.
Hougaard is too predictable and one-dimensional and Morné Steyn well he is even worse. South Africa with Steyn on 10 are forced to try and create play from the scrumhalf and you therefore require a experienced campaigner that can vary his game in that position. The alternative is to select a flyhalf that can play flat on the defensive line and who can create play from that position like Aaron Cruden did against Ireland. This current South Africa halfback combination is a festering problem for South Africa with the 4 nation test matches looming. My personal feeling is that Pienaar, Lambie and Frans Steyn would consitute a more potent 9-10-12 axis; better suited for the modern fast pace trench warfare type rugby and will offer more variation and less predictability with ball in hand.
So in summary the absolute and non-negotiable importance of tactical astuteness and dominance in the trenches is the one thing that stood out for me in the 9 Southern versus Northern hemisphere matches over the last three weeks.
The other aspect that goes hand in hand with trench warfare nature of the modern game is having halfbacks that can play chess; wizards who are fast of the mark and who understand angles and who can offload. Danny Care outplayed Hougaard in the 3rd test and that worries me because I don’t rate him to be in the same class than either Genia or Aaron Smith. My gut feeling is that it is in this area (one-dimensional halfback play) of our game that we are going to struggle (and potentially loose) in the upcoming test matches against New Zealand and Australia.
Lastly on a side note, I was extremely annoyed with the Danny Care try in the 3rd SA/England test match. You could read Care’s quick tap and run by a mile. It is his trademark. He does it all the time. The moment he picked the ball up –after the penalty was awarded- you could see the quick tap coming, his body language was as clear as daylight. The fact that the Springboks got caught by that primary school tactic is just inexcusable.