Six months on from being outscored, but not necessarily outclassed at the World Cup final, should England now consider taking a leaf out of South Africa’s book?
Such calls have been given gravity of late, with the very best and worst of the current England setup being on particularly vivid display in their first four Six Nations results of 2020.
Painful memories can be a positive
Simply put, the problem facing England in the final was that the South African defence is unlike any other in world rugby, and its nigh-impregnable nature has led the country to three world titles – though clearly not at the cost of a sizeable points difference:
The Springboks entered November’s final as marginal outsiders, but rugby union betting odds for major tournaments will surely reflect a newfound respect for South Africa, thanks to their playing style under head coach Rassie Erasmus.
Ironically, ‘style’ is perhaps the wrong word to use. The tactics employed were almost Stone Age in complexity, but it was a well-tested setup that Erasmus knew his side could win with. The ‘Boks’ unapologetically used their bulk and physicality to dominate the set piece and the breakdown area, against an England side that didn’t seem ready for the power of the South Africa pack.
England must ‘arm wrestle’ for territory
It certainly speaks volumes about South Africa’s tactics given that Makazole Mapimpi’s try in the second half of the final was the first try for South Africa in three World Cup finals.
South Africa wanted every game at the World Cup to be an arm wrestle for territory and possession, with territory being more important. Erasumus trusted his defence to be able to repel England’s attacks in the final, and rightly relied on England making serious mistakes after being made to play phase after phase in their own half.
With the Boks’ scrum being so dominant that any mistake quickly became a scrum penalty, England were basically playing every phase in their own half knowing that a mistake was going to lead to Handre Pollard kicking a penalty for three points.
That is a level of pressure that they weren’t able to deal with, making the transfer of bragging rights to South Africa – as shown below – inevitable:
A ‘kicking game’ – the eternal divisive factor
Overall, the way South Africa win is pretty simple. They don’t run crazy backline plays under their own posts or try to use two midfield playmakers – like England did in the World Cup final with George Ford and Owen Farrell.
“Keep the scoreboard moving” is a phrase often heard at lower levels of rugby. The idea being that kickable penalties should be taken – and converted – to keep the score increasing and making the opposition play from behind.
It is something that has fallen out of favour, however, with teams like New Zealand and England opting to kick for the corner and applying lineout pressure. They are looking for the potential seven points of a converted try as opposed to the almost automatic three from a penalty.
England have the muscle to play with either agenda in mind. However, winning without a degree of late tension – which has blighted England’s more recent victories – is something that needs to happen on a more consistent basis.