TOKYO, 8 Oct - South African rugby is enjoying a resurgence. After losing seven times last year, the Springboks have lost just once in 2019, against the All Blacks in Yokohama in their first game of this tournament, and are still many people's favourites to win RWC 2019.
The Springboks are generally regarded as being physically dominant but not necessarily exciting, and coach Rassie Erasmus acknowledged this after they beat Italy 49-3 in Shizuoka.
"We will work on attack, but we know we are really good at being physical. It doesn’t matter if it’s ugly or not, as long as we can get over the line."
You might think that would make South Africa games hard work to watch but Erasmus is doing his team a disservice. In fact, exceptionally powerful forward play is complemented by flourishes from talented backs.
When you have a player as exciting as wing Cheslin Kolbe, Erasmus’s job is to make sure he gets the ball. Rather than leaving him out on the wing, Erasmus wants to bring him into the midfield and get involved. One way to do that is to use your power game.
In the clip below, scrum-half Faf de Klerk carries across the pitch to pass to flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit. The threat of Faf’s running game and Du Toit’s carrying prowess condenses the Italian defence around them and that opens up a Cheslin-sized hole for the winger.
The skill of a strong forward-dominated power game is knowing when to stop using it - usually, once the forwards have opened up space for the backs to attack.
Some teams make the mistake of continuing using their forwards even after they have opened the space for the backs. South Africa knew exactly when to move to the backs to exploit the space. A combination of centre Damian de Allende, second-row Lood de Jager and hooker Malcolm Marx gets South Africa over the gain line and tightens the Italian defence around them.
When South Africa have their opposition in that position they need to strike and, right on cue, fly-half Handre Pollard kicks to exploit the space and Kolbe benefits again.
When South Africa combine their world-beating forward pack with ruthless backs they are a frightening prospect. Against a tiring Italian team they unleashed their props, with first Steven Kitshoff and then Vincent Koch crashing into the Italian defensive line. This narrows the defence and opens space wide. Full-back Willie Le Roux spots that and puts a kick through on the underdefended nearside. Left-wing Makazole Mapimpi, pictured above, is the beneficiary and crosses for South Africa’s fifth try.
Erasmus might have called South Africa's physical tactics 'ugly' but they are anything but. It is a gameplan built on forward power with flourishes from their exceptional backs. The forwards will tire you out with relentless carries. When they create space Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Pollard, and Mapimpi can make you look very silly as well.