Johannesburg - The South African Super Rugby teams’ commitment to attacking rugby this season, following last year’s rugby indaba to help the Springboks employ a similar approach, appears to have come at the expense of their defence.
With most of the franchises having played five matches this season (four for the Stormers and Bulls) before this week, five are conceding more points and tries per game. Only the Kings, whose defence wilted during the competition’s intensity in their return last year, have improved defensively.
The number of points conceded by local teams in the tournament as a whole are up. Former Bulls and Springboks defence coach John McFarland attributes this to the new laws on tackling, the way teams are setting up and the general approach of Super Rugby sides.
Faced with two players
“With the rules insisting on tackling low, teams are able to offload, which means more line breaks,” he said.
“Also, the shape of how teams play has changed. In the past, they played in pods of four and played around the corner. Now they’ve changed and are leaving guys in the wide channels, which means defences need to have more width.
“That’s why sides struggle – wingers used to be faced with just the wing and the fullback. Now, instead of being faced with two players, it’s probably four, with the hooker and probably a flanker also there. Then there’s still the offload...”
McFarland used the Blues’ third-minute try (by scrum half Augustine Pulu) against the Bulls as an example, when Travis Ismaiel found himself having to choose which of three opposition players to tackle.
McFarland also said the general approach in Super Rugby had changed since he coached at that level.
“Instead of trying to keep the points down and winning through pressure, teams are trying to score more than the opposition,” he said.
“People want to see tries, so it’s more entertainment and more of a spectacle.”
This approach has led to South African franchises’ numbers increasing this season.
Little more risk
The Sharks, who were the country’s best defensive side last year with 17.9 points conceded per game (two tries), still lead the charge, but have gone up to 22.2 with almost three tries (2.8) shipped per game. The Stormers, last season’s second best team, are still on their heels on 22.5 points conceded (three tries), coming from 18.2 points and 1.87 tries per game.
Even when they were mauling all before them en route to the final, the Lions relied more on scoring points than on defence (they averaged 23.6 points per game and 2.8 tries). This season, they are shipping about three points more and three tries per game.
The Bulls are conceding almost 10 more points than they did last year (32.5 from 22.6) and just under two tries more at 4.25 (from 2.47), with the Cheetahs staying true to their leaky ways by donating 33.2 points from last year’s 28.3 (3.8 tries from 3.2).
The Kings are the only improvement, going from 45.6 points per game to 32.8, or four tries per game from 6.3 last year.
Asked if the decision to play with ball in hand had any effect on the local teams conceding more points, McFarland said: “Maybe, you always defend in a game if you’re always chasing it. If you’re going to carry more, you’re going to play with a little more risk.”
Believe it or not, one team seems impervious to the new tackle laws and whatever playing shape other teams are employing.
The Hurricanes, who come off their defensive line so quickly they look like a field of false-starting sprinters, have conceded just 16 points per game (from 20.9) and 1.75 tries (from 2.47).
“They play the rush defence to cut the ball off from getting to those wide channels. It’s a high-risk, high-reward approach, but it seems to be working.”