TOKYO, 22 Oct – Last week the former Springbok Brendan Venter wrote: "Unfortunately good attacks don’t win World Cups – effective defences and set-pieces do."
Venter played for South Africa at the 1995 and 1999 Rugby World Cups, so he knows a thing or two about the game, and last weekend’s quarter-finals served to neatly illustrate his wisdom.
One of the most intriguing aspects of England’s 40-16 win over Australia, and South Africa’s 26-3 victory against Japan is that going by the scorelines you would assume both games were one-sided.
But on statistics alone, both losing sides dominated much of the match. Japan had 54% possession to South Africa’s 46%, beat more defenders (20 to 15), and completed more carries (129 to 90).
Australia’s dominance was even more stark. They enjoyed the lion’s share of possession (64% to 36%), gained more than twice as many metres (578 to 275), made 153 carries to 71, beat 21 defenders to England’s 13, and made 14 clean breaks to eight.
And yet, neither Japan nor Australia came close to winning. Despite all that ball in hand, they scored one try between the two of them. So, what happened?
Put simply, England and South Africa were ruthlessly clinical. While Japan have dazzled the tournament with their devotion to attacking rugby – the unrelenting running, the sheer cunning and daring of their offloads, the telepathic understanding – they ran head first into an immoveable Springbok juggernaut.
The numbers show that South Africa made 148 tackles on Sunday, missing 20. But those bare figures alone do not do justice to the way South Africa ground down the host nation’s hopes in Yokohama. For 60 minutes, wave upon wave of Japan attacks repeatedly crashed into an unwilting defensive line, marshalled by the outstanding Damian de Allende who made 17 tackles alone, including the one to stop Kenki Fukuoka's break, pictured above and highlighted in the tweet below.
It was rugby’s version of ‘rope-a-dope’ and when Japan finally began to tire, it was the Springboks who rose defiantly from the canvas, crossing twice in the final 14 minutes to add extra gloss to the score. Overall, just 3% of Springbok possession came in the Japan 22 but they converted that into three tries.
England, too, showcased that they have a defence to be reckoned with. Australia have spent the past four years trying to hone a high-tempo, high-passing game under the guidance of former All Blacks skills coach Mick Byrne, but the threat of Samu Kerevi, Jordan Petaia and Marika Koroibete was expertly blunted by England’s well-drilled squad, who made 193 tackles.
Before this match, no England player had ever made more than 16 tackles in a World Cup match. Against Australia, Sam Underhill (20), Mako Vunipola (18) - both pictured stopping Christian Lealiifano - Jamie George (17), and Owen Farrell (17) all surpassed this mark. And like South Africa, when their opponents paused, England counter-attacked with deadly efficiency.
When it comes to the semi-finals, it will undoubtedly be defensive acumen that ultimately wins the day. While New Zealand are typically lauded for their remarkable skill levels with the ball in hand, their ability to stop opponents scoring is arguably even more effective.
So far they have conceded three tries in four matches, and on Saturday, so disciplined were their defensive formations that Ireland – the world’s No.1 side in the rankings going into this tournament – were made to look pedestrian and one-dimensional. While Ireland ran in two late consolation scores, they simply did not get a sniff until it was all over.