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Analysis: Diminutive de Klerk and Davies making decisive defensive plays

The South Africa and Wales scrum-halves are small players but often make a big impact without the ball.

AT ONE STAGE last weekend, Faf de Klerk’s clever defensive work made it look like he was actually part of Japan’s attack.

The Brave Blossoms ran a loop play from a left-hand-side scrum and the South African halfback nipped in for a rather odd-looking intercept.

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It’s a superbly unorthodox bit of defending from de Klerk as he initially hounds opposite number Yutaka Nagare and then makes a sharp read and continues to mirror Nagare’s running line, ensuring he can take the return pass intended for the Japan scrum-half.

Faf

Some defenders might have dropped off after Nagare’s initial pass but de Klerk is a bundle of energy and alertness in defence, making him a key part of the Springboks’ defensive picture under Jacques Nienaber.

He may be just 5ft 7ins and under 90kg but de Klerk often makes a big impact for the Boks in defence. 

“It might look a bit role-less but there is a bit of a role going on there,” said de Klerk in Tokyo today ahead of Sunday’s World Cup semi-final against Wales.

“It’s not just willy-nilly and running around. I need to fill certain spaces and make sure we are covered on both sides of the ruck and make sure the numbers are right.

“As nines in our system, we need to make sure we come off the line and our numbers are correct on both sides. I try to do well for the team and create a turnover, and that’s one great thing about this team: everybody’s up for it.”

De Klerk has made 22 tackles so far in the World Cup while missing 10 for a completion rate of 69%, which is the second-lowest in the Boks squad.

Several of those 10 misses have been straight-up errors but de Klerk’s role often means he is rushing forward at pace on the edge of the defence, sometimes resulting in him slipping off the tackle while still positively applying pressure onto the opposition or snuffing out an attacking chance.

Despite his relative lack of size, de Klerk is still capable of contributing to tackles on big ball-carriers, as in the example below on Japan’s 108kg Kazuki Himeno.

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Clearly Eben Etzebeth has a major impact in this tackle but de Klerk’s linespeed and leg focus slow Himeno to provide the Boks lock with a target.

Oftentimes, de Klerk defends on the edge for the South Africans, most obviously after lineouts, where he starts by occupying the five-metre channel.

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As we can see below, de Klerk is highly proactive from that edge position, racing forward at speed in a bid to shut the ball down before the attack can get it wide.

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Japan have held numbers out on their left from the initial lineout – as their structure ensures is always the case – but de Klerk is aggressive in biting up and in from the edge of South Africa’s frontline defence to pressure Japanese centre Tim Lafaele.

De Klerk completes the tackle to leave Japan well behind the advantage line and they kick the ball away on the very next phase. 

When he’s not set up on the edge of the defence after lineouts, de Klerk is often swarming in and around the ruck, attempting to disrupt the opposition scrum-half or filling into the line to make tackles on the fringes.

Long gone are the days where scrum-halves simply swept in behind the frontline in defence, covering possible kick space. They are highly-active and often highly-important defenders who can have a decisive impact on games.

De Klerk is a prime example, while his opposite number on Sunday, Wales’ Gareth Davies, is another.

5ft 10ins Davies has a tackle completion rate of just 63% in this World Cup but he has delivered some of the most decisive defensive plays in the tournament thanks to his trademark intercepts like the one below for a try against Australia.

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Davies’ timing and acceleration make him a huge danger in this kind of situation, with opposite number Will Genia looking for real width on his pass away off the touchline.

If the ball beats Davies, the Welsh defence is naturally going to be very stretched, but the pacy scrum-half has sight of the ball all the way here and feels his decision to shoot up very aggressivly is not a major risk.

Davies is also a threat when the opposition first receiver is passing, as we see below earlier in the same game.

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Clearly, Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards has backed Davies to make decisions to shoot out of the line in a bid to intercept opposition passes, trusting in the scrum-half’s decision-making and speed over the ground.

It’s certainly something the Springboks will be wary of on Sunday in Yokohama.

“He has scored a few tries from intercepts, and he is not very focused on being in the defensive line and making positive hits,” said de Klerk. “He is more there to disrupt the attack and get in between the nine and the first forwards, or nine and 10 in the second pod.

“He is trying to disrupt that, get an intercept and score a try. We are aware of it, and we know he does it very well. He’s got great speed off the line.

“We are going to have to be awake on that. If me or Polly [out-half Handré Pollard] see him off the line, we will know he is probably going to shoot.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella  / Reports from Tokyo

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