Styles Make Fights - Scotland Against South Africa
While France against New Zealand will take the limelight this weekend as the opening match up for a much anticipated World Cup, it's not the only great matchup that will be on this weekend. Scotland against South Africa doesn’t have the history of France versus New Zealand or Fiji against Wales but in its own way it promises to be a treat. Scotland are the epitome of a maverick side, one happy to concede 40 if they score 41. On the other hand South Africa are brutalistic, and suffocating, taking each point conceded as a personal affront seemingly happier to grind out a 9 to 8 win so long as they win.
Now these descriptions are pretty reductive but as the old boxing adage goes its styles that make fights, and on Sunday we see a ballroom dancer take on a backstreet brawler.
Using data from Oval Insights we can begin to breakdown each side's tendencies and where they fit in the broader rugby landscape. To visualise a side's DNA we can use a Radar Plot like the one below. So what can it tell us about Scotland? Firstly, Townsend’s side are driven by their Fly Half, with the number 10 is responsible for higher share of the passes than in 93% of other professional rugby teams.
The other key for Scotland is that they control plenty of the ball, having more rucks per game than 76% of sides. Having the ball allows the Fly Half to control the tempo and manipulate the opposition defences trying to find the chink in their armour.
This Fly Half driven attack needs a special character to drive them around the field but retain the play making ability to unlock defences, and in Finn Russell they have just the player. As we can see from his radar he is a 10 who doesn’t really carry the ball and makes more passes than average. He also offloads an incredible amount (more than 90% of Top Level Fly Halves). This maverick side helps spread the ball and keep it alive while the lack of carrying means he is often on his feet and able to pull the strings.
In South Africa we see a totally different approach to the attacking game. Where Scotland’s is primarily driven by the 10, South Africa have their scrum half and full back drive the play. The Scrum Half is the more important cog in the system helping feed the big bruising forward runners who form such a key part of the South African style.
South Africa’s style is clear from the 3 categories on the left of the radar. They sit in the bottom 25% for their offloading, their passes per ruck (width) and the amount of times their forwards pass the ball. The Springboks look to send a clear message to their opponents, they will run at you for the entire 80 minutes.
We can see their approach perfectly in the two videos below. In the first the South Africans make a carry from a scrappy lineout and then play a phase off 9 before kicking. In the second off the back of a dominant lineout maul they make a carry down the blind side with their backs giving width, before two direct punches from the forward carriers.
Both attacks operate in a tight alley of attack while any width is enabled by the backs with not a single forward making a pass in either passage of play. This sledgehammer approach gives them a solid platform, in the first clip allowing a box kick which pins Argentina in the 22, in the second they win a penalty and continue their grind up the field.
Speed and Deception - Two Approaches To Edge Attack
We can see the real difference in their approach when they play wide off an edge. Edge attacks are a great way to view the mechanisms behind an attacking system with teams easily able to find their shape.
Starting with the Springboks, we see them gain the ball from a box kick with Kolbe retrieving the scraps. The electric winger then runs in field before throwing a miss pass, and finding Libbok who shows great awareness to find Willie Le Roux, who kicks to Jesse Kriel who takes the space before popping the ball inside to Ardense. This phase is off transition and the Springboks have done well to find the space. They then spread the ball wide off an edge, the ball is fizzed straight to Libbok who then kicks to Duane Vermeulen who is dragged into touch.
The Eben Etzebeth try from the same game is another good example of this speed to width. South Africa initially adopted a physical approach battering their way closer on subsequent phases. This puts Argentina on the back foot. However once they notice a chance to spread the ball wide Willie Le Roux enters the picture receiving the ball directly from Faf De Klerk and then fizzing a ball wide for Etzebeth to finish.
The South African strategy for getting the ball wide relies on speed and depth. They are looking to throw a minimal number of passes in order to out flank the defence and then exploit the space that is left undefended. It is one of the reasons their 15 makes a high share of their passes, with the Full Back offering the second pair of hands to spread the ball.
Scotland on the other hand rely on deception to get the ball wide. This is driven by their 3-2 edge shapes. The name 3-2 denotes a first pod (typically forwards) formed of 3 players with a second deeper pod aligned off the Fly Half with two hard runners. Both these pods are run in a narrow section of the pitch aiming to fix the inside press of the defence and force them to bite in and defend the hard runners. The backs in behind this pod structure then spread the ball to the extremities of the pitch to outflank the compact inside defence.
This clip against Australia showcases the style perfectly. The first pass is to Grant Gilchrist in the centre of a forward pod. The second rower approaches the line, attracting defenders, before flipping the ball to Kinghorn. Kinghorn then delivers a fast ball to Sione Tuipolutu to find the edge of a compacted Wallaby defence. The phase ends with a Wallaby steal, but it shows Scotland's intent under Townsend.
These two clips show the differences well between Scotland and South Africa’s attacking styles and especially their use of forwards. Scotland use their forwards as ball players to attract the opposition defence, and give time to the backs to find the right option. South Africa on the other hand only play wider if they are truly on the front foot which means they require speed to play around the opponents defence. Take the Etzebeth try, the initial forward passes have driven them closer and given them momentum. Then Willie Le Roux enters the line and after two quick passes South Africa find the space and crash over.
By utilising the whole width of the pitch off just a couple of passes South Africa are quickly able to exploit the space, while Scotland’s use of multiple passes mean the opponent’s are tied closer to the ruck so once the ball arrives out wide the space has been maintained.
Compression v Connection: Different Defensive Approaches
The clash of styles isn’t limited to attack, with both sides adopting different philosophies defensively as well. South Africa bring an incredibly aggressive defence in the textbook example of a blitz defence, meanwhile in Scotland Steve Tandy has moved in the opposite direction and introduced a zonal defence.
Lets begin with Jacques Nienaber blitz defence. In their defensive profile we can see the importance of aggressive wingers, who try and compress the field. We can see this by looking at the number of tackles the wingers make between the 15ms, with South Africa making more than 89% of Pro Teams.
This aggression has its disadvantages, with South Africa missing more tackles than nearly 70% of sides. However, this is a risk Nienaber embraces, as Jerry Flannery describes about their time together at Munster. “Jacques empowers players to the point that they feel really confident. They think: ‘If I just do what Jacques says, even if I make mistakes, we will win the game.’”
However, empowering players is a necessity for all defensive systems, not limited to just the blitz defence. In many ways Steve Tandy’s empowerment is more impressive with his system being a complete change from the aggressive space invading blitz defence which was typical of the past decade.
For Scotland they are focused on connection, defending with a zonal defence system rather than the harsh blitz style of the Boks. Scotland’s connection means they rarely miss tackles with a better tackle success rate than 96% of top level professional sides. The drift defence, and its sliding nature is shown by the difference in wing centre field tackle percentage, with 95% of sides having more aggressive wingers,
Clearly the data tells two very distinct stories but what does this look like on the field? Lets start with Steve Tandy’s slow and steady approach. In their second defensive set against Wales earlier this year we saw a textbook example.
The Welsh attack started having won a turnover in the right hand 15m channel. But despite being on transition the Scottish defence is set quickly spanning across the field. A loopy pass from the base by Gareth Davies allows Scotland to make a first tackle behind the gain line and impose themselves on the Welsh attack.
As play develops Scotland maintain their width, presenting no clear opportunities for the Welsh attack. Take a look at this screenshot from the 4th phase. The winger is standing well within the 15m channel, helping his inside players set wider. While their defensive line is square and presses as a single connected line with no outside defenders accelerating too hard.
Wales make a half break down the edge with Tomos Williams offloading over the top of the Scotland defence. But Tandy's men recover quickly, and the defensive wall is quickly repaired and well set. When they set their line there is a small detail which enables their well connected press.
While the offside line is at the back foot of the ruck Scotland instead start a step behind it. This allows them to accelerate as the 9 passes with less risk of giving away an offside penalty. It’s a tactic that is clearly working, with Scotland conceding the least offside penalties per game of any Six Nation or Rugby Championship side. Beyond penalties though it also reduces the chance of jumping the gun helping them all to remain connected as they get off the line.
As we have already discussed Jacques Nienaber’s defensive system with the Springboks is polar opposite to Tandy’s defence. South Africa’s defence looks to compress space and apply huge line speed as part of their process.
The fundamental building block of their line speed is the aggression from the outside. In this clip the line speed is particularly well driven by Faf De Klerk who sits just inside the winger and often gets high defending beyond the ball trying to turn New Zealand back into the centre of South Africa’s defence. Look in this phase how Faf De Klerk and winger Kurt Le Ardense both start between the 15m channels and get higher than the inside defence.
This aggressive style has long been the defining characteristic of the Springboks defence under Jacques Nienaber. Here is a clip showing a defensive set against Wales. Look at the intent to make tackles behind the gain line and turn the screws on the Wales attack. You’ll also see that umbrella style blitz yet again with the outside edge of the defence accelerating faster than the inside shutting off access to the wide channels.
The defensive clash is perhaps the most intriguing part of their match on Sunday. Both sides defend in effective ways, but the two approaches are the polar opposite of each other. Scotland’s slow and steady approach against the high risk high reward intensity of the Springboks will be a thrill.
Scotland v South Africa: Clash Of Philosophies
There are plenty of great games to open the Rugby World Cup, with France versus New Zealand probably the pick of the bunch. But it would be a mistake to write off Scotland's clash against South Africa as we see two completely different styles of rugby and schools of thought come to blows. Scotland will look to impose a more expansive style on the game with ball in hand while South Africa’s defence look to strangle their access to the wide channels trying to compress the space. Conversely when they have the ball South Africa will look to brutalise the Scottish attack and win the battle of the gain line while looking to move the ball quickly from the edge and win the race to the far side if they can create space. Both systems have their advantages and both have their drawbacks, which approach to rugby will be left standing on Sunday? Maverick or Brutalisim? Connected or Compressive?