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Rassie Erasmus has successfully dominated the media agenda this week with a masterclass in deflection.
Because, while people chatter about mysterious Twitter accounts and refereeing decisions, fewer punters are discussing a stodgy South Africa performance or big selection calls that were not vindicated in the first Test against the British and Irish Lions.
Publicly, Erasmus wants to keep the debate about officiating and the true identity of Jaco Johan. Privately, he and head coach Jacques Nienaber have work to do. Here are four aspects that the Springboks must improve – immediately – to save the series.
The era of Erasmus and Nienaber has been characterised by kicking, set-piece power and aggressive defence. Importantly, though, South Africa’s best performances have also featured moments of slick attacking invention.
Take this try, finished by reserve scrum-half Herschel Jantjies, to seal a 16-16 draw against New Zealand in 2019. Willie le Roux arcs around Handré Pollard to the second-receiver slot and feeds Cheslin Kolbe to outflank the All Blacks.
A deft chip ahead is gathered by Jantjies, before Pollard’s conversion sealed a result that boosted the Springboks’ confidence ahead of Rugby World Cup 2019:
On Saturday, South Africa spent a total of 67 rucks in possession. They completed just 77 passes. Their average of passes per ruck was 1.149, the lowest in the 28 Tests since Erasmus took the reins at the start of 2018. Incidentally, the Lions completed 120 passes from 72 rucks for an average of 1.67.
Data from Opta
Key: 1T = first Test, 2T = second Test, 3T = third Test, TRC = The Rugby Championship, RWC = Rugby World Cup, QF = quarter-final, SF = semi-final, F = final
You will notice that South Africa registered 66 rucks in possession during the Rugby World Cup final against England, just one fewer that in the first Test against the Lions. On the way to lifting the Webb Ellis trophy, they completed 97 passes. That suggests they were considerably more clinical and ambitious.
There were chances to impart width on Saturday. In this case, explored in an article on Lions flanker Courtney Lawes earlier this week, Le Roux is in the second-receiver slot with teammates outside him…
…but centre Damian de Allende holds on at first-receiver and the ball never reaches the 15-metre channel:
In separate South Africa attacks either side of half-time, Le Roux and Lukhanyo Am spilled as the hosts Africa attempted to stretch the robust Lions defence.
Le Roux has been a vital second distributor in recent years and his withdrawal did not help. Even so, the Springboks looked blinkered in the final stages after Damian Willemse recovered a restart to give them one last shot at victory.
Only three times have South Africa recorded fewer passes in Test matches since 2018. We should stress that each of these occasions brought victory – a rope-a-dope win over New Zealand in Wellington, their strangling of Japan on the eve of Rugby World Cup 2019 and the semi-final kick-fest against Wales at the tournament.
The difference between those games and Saturday’s series-opener was that the Lions did not succumb to kick-pressure – thanks in part to a few strokes of fortune – and gradually asserted superiority in the aerial exchanges. Because of that, and because they stood up to South Africa’s muscle, the Springboks needed more from their attack.
Away from the social media sideshow, that will have been a focus this week. But one wonders how easy it will be to rediscover an expansive dimension. South Africa A passed 61 times from 61 rucks a fortnight ago and, in picking Chris Harris at outside centre, the Lions are certainly poised to defend the narrow channels.
Back-field presence and a gamble on Jasper Wiese
Replacing the titanic Duane Vermeulen was never going to be a straightforward task for Erasmus and Nienaber. This is where dearth lack of Test matches since the Rugby World Cup has hurt them, because alternatives could have been evaluated more closely.
Frankly, the decision to start the explosive Kwagga Smith at the base of the scrum back-fired. The Lions went looking for South Africa’s number eight, both from restarts and box-kicks. At the start of the second half, Gatland’s side earned their reward for this premeditated plan with a pair of pivotal turnovers.
Nienaber suggested on Tuesday that he could have protected Smith, presumably by deploying more blockers or by asking a different player to hang.
Jasper Wiese’s promotion, not just into the squad but for a maiden Test start on the occasion of his second cap, should give the Springboks more presence in the back-field.
The 25-year-old is coming off a bristling breakthrough season for Leicester Tigers. Wiese announced himself with this eye-popping rampage on debut against Gloucester…
It took not one, not two, but SEVEN ATTEMPTS to get Jasper Wiese down 💪
He's going to be a handful for @LeicesterTigers this season 🐯#GallagherPrem highlights and full match replay ➡️ https://t.co/Y52XjCUIpN pic.twitter.com/RzxCHNeBKH
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) November 24, 2020
…and barely let up from there, beating 57 defenders from 185 carries over 15 Premiership appearances. He did a lot of damage from kick-returns.
This does feel like a gamble from Erasmus and Nienaber, though. And it has to be because of their lack of options. Dan du Preez, for instance, has not been seen this summer on the back of a barnstorming campaign for Sale Sharks.
Wiese was stripped by Bundee Aki with his first run in South Africa 'A'’s win over the Lions. Despite some strong defence and breakdown spoiling, his final tally of 11 metres from nine carries reflected a quiet outing in attack. Similarly, Wiese could not impose himself on Leicester’s European Challenge Cup final against Montpellier.
After two yellow cards and a red in Premiership action last season, his temperament will come up in Lions meetings this week as well.
Watch: Lower body workout
Back to a Bomb Squad... but can South Africa's bench work?
Given how successful the six-two split was for South Africa at the World Cup, it seemed odd to move away from that strategy for the first Test. Uncertainty over the fitness of Pollard and Makazole Mapimpi was the official reason.
This time, they have reverted to what worked before with six forwards lined up to come on in the second half, hoping that their Bomb Squad will turn up this week after fizzling out in the first Test.
One key member of the World Cup bench contingent, however, remains absent. RG Snyman is not ready after suffering burns in a fire pit accident, and the loss of his physicality off the bench was obvious last week.
Nienaber and Erasmus do still have Malcolm Marx, Vincent Koch and Lood de Jager from Yokohama. Marx made 11 tackles coming on at half-time last week but his carrying threat was toned down, while De Jager, after a stop-start run with injuries over the last year, was notably quiet.
Gone from the bench are Rynard Elstadt, a recent Top 14 and Champions Cup double-winner with Toulouse, and Elton Jantjies. Vincent Koch and Marco van Staden come in.
Koch’s inclusion has meant that Trevor Nyakane will cover loosehead. While 32-year-old Nyakane has swapped between both sides of the scrum throughout his career, he has not worn either one or 17 since facing Wales in December 2017.
As a tighthead last week, Nyakane won his battle with Rory Sutherland in the eyes of the officials, but switching back to loosehead is a match-up Tadhg Furlong and Kyle Sinckler might be happy with.
Marco van Staden’s introduction in the number 20 jersey is interesting. Leicester-bound next season, and praised highly by his Bulls coach Jake White, he is not enormous. Van Staden stands 6ft tall and weighs 16 stone.
As a specialist fetcher, though, he will bring the kind of threat over the ball at the ruck the Springboks missed during the second half when the Lions took control of the breakdown.
Van Staden won more more turnovers than anyone else during the recent Rainbow Cup in South Africa. Like Wiese though, his Test experience is thin, with this being his fourth cap.
Smith will have to come into play here as well. He is a better player than last weekend's performance suggested and his pace and jackalling ability should suit a more ragged contest in the closing stages.
Finally, Willemse being selected in the utility back role marks a passing of the baton from Frans Steyn and sums up the trust both Nienaber and Erasmus have in the 23-year-old. He is unquestionably talented, as we saw in the first Test with his brilliant take off the restart to spark South Africa's final attack...
... and there has been an air of him beginning to fulfil his potential over recent weeks.
Second-half penalties within the range of Dan Biggar and Owen Farrell killed the Springboks, as illustrated well here by @RugbyStatsR on Twitter.
The Lions dialled up the pressure through their kicking game, denying South Africa territory. Compounding that, the Springboks continued to fall foul of Nic Berry and conceded a total of eight second-half penalties to just one from the Lions.
Looking at the penalties by quarter there is a clear difference between the two halves. After half time the Lions conceded just one penalty, compared to 8 for the Boks.
The third quarter stands out, as SA concede 5 penalties in their own half while the Lions concede 0. pic.twitter.com/2aPsIMIaQJ
— Rugby Stats (@RugbyStatsR) July 27, 2021
Add all those up and it is no wonder the world champions lost the first Test. Pieter-Steph du Toit and Smith gave away three penalties each on their own over the course of the match.
Those second-half offences went as follows:
#1 Not releasing against Smith
#2 High tackle against Etzebeth
#3 In front of the kicker against Le Roux
#4 Illegal rip in tackle against Smith
#5 Offside against Mapimpi
#6 Collapsing the maul against Mostert
#7 Not scrummaging straight against Koch
#8 Collapsing the maul against Du Toit
Seven of those were conceded in South Africa's half, with the exception being the scrum penalty won by Mako Vunipola.
Without improving their physicality and timing at the breakdown from the second half of the first Test, South Africa will struggle again.
Watch: Core workout