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Analysis: Barrett and Mo'unga pose dual threat as Boks' kicking crucial

Rassie Erasmus’ side earned a draw in Wellington but have improvements to make.

THE WINNING MARGIN between New Zealand and South Africa had been two points or less in their previous three Test matches, so last Saturday night’s 16-16 draw in Wellington should not have come as too much of a surprise.

The Springboks scored a 36-34 win at the same venue in last year’s Rugby Championship and they have clearly found the belief and formula to compete consistently with the All Blacks. 

Herschel Jantjies celebrates scoring a try The Boks earned a draw in Wellington last weekend. Source: Photosport/Raghavan Venugopal/INPHO

Rassie Erasmus opening up selection to all overseas-based players has been critical to the improvement in the Springboks’ on-field performances. Having the ability to pick quality players such as Francois Louw, Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe and others has clearly added to the depth of the national team. Crucially, in Faf de Klerk they have a scrumhalf who, in tandem with Handre Pollard, can steer an exceptionally powerful South African forward pack around the pitch.

De Klerk’s tactical kicking game has developed with his time spent in the Premiership, where last season he kicked the fourth-most of any scrum-half in the competition and was only eight kicks shy of compatriot Cobus Reinach of Northampton, who was top of the charts. 

On Saturday night in Wellington, de Klerk’s box kicking caused the All Blacks a huge amount of difficulty. In defence of New Zealand’s back three, the swirling wind at the ‘Cake Tin’ can be a significant issue, but that makes it all the more puzzling that TJ Perenara did not kick once in the game on his home ground. Aaron Smith also chose not to put boot to ball during his 22-minute cameo, which is in contrast to the 18 kicks from the two South African scrum-halves.

Tellingly, the All Blacks failed to deal with four out of six of de Klerk’s contestable box kicks in the game, three of which led to turnovers. The Springboks enjoyed the better of both the possession (NZ 43% – SA 57%) and territory stats (NZ 41% – SA 59%) in the first half, largely due to South Africa’s kicking game and the volume of the All Black’s uncharacteristic turnovers. 

Faf de Klerk De Klerk is a key man for the Boks. Source: Photosport/Grant Down/INPHO

Interestingly, in the second half, the possession (NZ 67% – SA 33%) and territorial (NZ 71% – SA 29%) stats in the game shifted significantly in New Zealand’s favour which coincided with de Klerk’s departure from the field due to concussion.

Indeed, at one stage replacement scrumhalf, Herschel Jantjies, had set up to box kick only to be overcalled by Pollard who then kicked an ambitious crossfield kick into touch on the full.

Statistically, the game highlighted the significantly contrasting playing styles of the two sides.

Worryingly for South Africa, despite their control in the first half they only had six points to show for their efforts. In fact, the Springboks only made three linebreaks in the entire game. New Zealand’s defensive line could afford to be narrow and aggressive due to the lack of ball movement of the South African forwards and backs.

The stats show that the Springboks forwards only passed the ball on 15 occasions with Pollard passing 13 times in the game. The All Blacks’ defenders were relatively comfortable in the fact they could commit two defenders to one Springbok ball-carrier safe in the knowledge that short tip passes or link balls to a back in behind the forward pod were unlikely.

A 91% tackle success rate (106/117) reflects the effectiveness of the New Zealand defence given the territory and possession the Springboks enjoyed.

Encouragingly, the exception to the rule for the Springboks was replacement RG Snyman. The mammoth lock has a devastating offloading game, which he displayed all Super Rugby season for the Bulls, and he continued in a similar vein for his country when introduced on Saturday. From his three carries, he offloaded twice (the most of any South African player) and made New Zealand’s defence look vulnerable for the first time in the Test.

RG

For South Africa to be genuine World Cup contenders it will be important for them to add variation to their attack such as Snyman’s offloading ability whilst also facilitating more entry points into the game for their genuine x-factor outside backs in Kolbe and le Roux.

The contrast in playing styles is starkly illustrated by the All Blacks’ attacking data. New Zealand’s forwards moved the ball on 31 occasions (double that of the Springboks’ forwards) whilst Mo’onga passed 31 times (almost three times as often as Pollard).

The width and variation in their attack led to 16 clean breaks – four times as many as the Springboks – with 28 defenders beaten compared to 11 from South Africa.

This data would generally lead to the assumption that New Zealand won the game, however 19 turnovers, a large percentage of which were unforced handling errors, continually halted their momentum. Their ball movement and width in attack is undoubtedly causing opposition defences trouble but interestingly that is now a staggering 44 turnovers in two games for the All Blacks, which will be of some concern for Steve Hansen.

Much had been made of the selection of Richie Mo’unga at 10 and Beauden Barrett at 15 prior to the game. There are some definite trends from the game which illustrate how the pair worked in tandem during the match. 

Of the 31 passes Mo’unga threw, 30% of them went directly to Barrett which would be above average for a 10-15 combination. This shows New Zealand’s intent to use the pair in first and second receiver roles in order to manipulate South Africa’s hard-pressing, out-to-in defensive line.

When Mo’unga wasn’t distributing directly to Barrett, the All Blacks were keen on creating midfield breakdowns to split the field and use Mo’unga and Barrett as playmakers on either side of the ruck. 

The graphic below illustrates how New Zealand looked to create width in their attack and take advantage of South Africa’s narrow defensive line.

Picture 1

On this occasion, New Zealand use Sam Whitelock and Ofa Tu’ungafasi as decoys to by-pass the eight South African defenders inside the 15m channel.

Barrett (circled in red) is at first receiver and his priority is to find a forward runner in midfield, in this case, Vaea Fifita (circled outside Barrett).

Having received Barrett’s pass, Fifita was able to offload in contact and New Zealand make a linebreak through Jack Goodhue into South Africa’s 22m.

The graphic below is a clear example of Mo’unga and Barrett working as first receivers either side of the breakdown and the implications it has on the Springbok’s defence.

Picture 2

Whilst South Africa still have one more defender on the short side who is out of picture (Pieter-Steph du Toit) it is still a 5v3 for New Zealand. On this occasion, Coles takes the ball into contact and doesn’t exploit his side’s numerical advantage.

Below, we get another example of New Zealand’s strategy.

Picture 3

This time New Zealand use Owen Franks as a decoy to by-pass the seven South African defenders inside the 15m, and Barrett plays to Kieran Read in midfield.

Having created the midfield breakdown through Read’s carry, Mo’unga and Barrett are loaded either side of the breakdown as playmaking options, as highlighted below.

Picture 4

On this occasion, Brodie Retallick steps into first receiver late. Despite being numbers down, Cheslin Kolbe sticks to the Springboks’ defensive system and shoots in on Retallick.

The lock’s considerable size advantage on the diminutive winger tells and he sends Mo’unga down the touchline.

Picture 5

Although selected at 15, Barrett still remained the most influential player for New Zealand.

He led the stats for ball carries, metres made and linebreaks, was second to the excellent Goodhue in defenders beaten (6) and passed the ball on 22 occasions. His electric pace in the wider channels was instrumental for New Zealand’s try off turnover ball and he was relatively solid under the high ball bar one drop from a Pollard bomb.

If the experiment is to continue, it will be interesting to see how kicking duties are shared. In this game, Barrett started with 50m restarts and goal kicks whilst Mo’unga was charged with 22m restarts and touch kicks and took over goal-kicking duties after Barrett’s two straightforward misses.

Mo’unga was also charged down twice in the opening quarter when exiting which will need to be ironed out going into the first Bledisloe match in Perth in two weekends’ time.

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About the author:

Eoin Toolan  / Professional rugby coach and performance analyst

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