TOKYO, 28 Oct – When Rassie Erasmus was first appointed South Africa coach in early 2018, the first call he made was to his most trusted right-hand man, defence coach Jacques Nienaber.
As he puts it, Erasmus’s job was to restore credibility to the Springbok brand, one which had suffered in a series of record defeats throughout 2016 and 2017. He first took charge just months after a 57-0 reverse at the hands of New Zealand, and a dismal 38-3 defeat by Ireland.
“We’ve been under pressure to redeem ourselves over the past few years,” said Erasmus. “Back in 2016 and 2017 almost every team we played gave us a hiding. When we came together in early 2018, we were trying to get that respect back.”
So Erasmus turned to his old friend Nienaber. The pair have a deep bond which goes back to their days in the army, and later as colleagues across the professional rugby world from the Free State Cheetahs to Munster. Quite simply, his job was to patch up the Springboks’ leaky defence into one which could keep even the best attacking sides at bay, and he had 18 months in which to do it.
In the months that followed, the transformation has been remarkable. While other teams have looked to add invention to their attacking phase play, South Africa have focused on becoming one of the most well-drilled teams in world rugby. Their game is based largely around a powerful pack who roam the gain line, determined to win collisions in both attack and defence, as well as dominating set-pieces.
Nienaber, pictured with centre Lukhanyo Am, has made a huge difference. In 2016 the Springboks shipped 329 points in their 12 matches at an average of more than 27 per game.
So far in 2019, they have conceded a mere 126 in 11 tests – an average of just over 11 a match, fewer than any other team at the Rugby World Cup.
Indeed, if you list the teams who have conceded the fewest points on average across tests in 2019, it is clear that the old adage rings true: defences win championships.
The four semi-finalists – South Africa, England, New Zealand and Wales – occupy the top four spots, and South Africa and England are the top two.
While England have always held considerable attacking potency over the course of Eddie Jones’s tenure, the introduction of a series of key defensive weapons has transformed their fortunes over the past year and a half.
During the 2018 Six Nations – in which England finished fifth after defeats by Scotland, France and Ireland, shipping 92 points in total – none of Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Tom Curry or Sam Underhill featured. Over the past year, Curry in particular has proven himself to be indispensable while Underhill has been one of the standout performers of this Rugby World Cup.
1.6 - Wales' average gain of 1.6 metres per carry against the @Springboks yesterday was the lowest any side has ever recorded in a Rugby World Cup fixture (182 metres from 114 carries). Denied.#RWC2019 pic.twitter.com/vrGeqInWC6— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) October 28, 2019
It was also after that disappointing Six Nations effort that Jones appointed John Mitchell, the former All Blacks coach, as defence coach - a role he has performed so well he has had his contract extended.
The gradual introduction of that quartet has played a key role in making England devilishly difficult to break down. So far in 2019, they have conceded an average of just 13.6 points per game compared to nearly 19 in 2018, and 17 in 2017.
Those small improvements have made all the difference in transforming his team into the world-beating outfit who have been so imperious over the past six weeks.