Attack and defend: A double-edged sword

Despite losing 38-27 in a thrilling contest, the Springbok rugby team played liked stars against the All Blacks at Ellis Park. They played with courage, belief and creativity.

Going into the final match knowing what needed to be achieved, helped to structure and focus the mental energy of the team. In order for the Springboks to win the 2013 Rugby Championship, they needed to beat the All Blacks by more than 7 points, score four tries (to get a bonus point) and then prevent the All Blacks from getting a bonus point (by stopping them from scoring four tries or getting within 7 points).

In the build-up to the match there was a lot of talk about scoring the four tries. On a realistic level, it was going to be a tall order for the team to achieve this. Historically, the Springboks play a cautious, measured game, based on a solid defensive pattern. At times in the past, however, this type of mindset has back-fired. In the 2011 World Cup, for example, the Springboks lost in the quarter-finals because they were stuck in a rigid defensive mindset that had been in-grained for a couple of years preceding the tournament. So they found it impossible to convert their significant territorial and possession advantage into scoring tries.

It is not in the nature of a Springbok team to throw caution to the wind and consciously think and focus predominantly on attack. For this match, the team was asked to shift from their more secure and comfortable stance of safety and defence, to an attacking mindset against a world class opposition that seldom leaks four tries. This approach was going to involve taking some calculated risks.

I was interested to see whether the Springboks would be able to commit themselves to this goal during the match. It is one thing talking about a goal; it is another ball game to act on the stated intention of attack and scoring tries.

Of major significance, after only 59 minutes of play in the match, the Springboks had scored the four tries that they had spoken about and were leading 27-24. This was a remarkable achievement. At that stage of the match, the All Blacks had scored three tries. Unfortunately, for the rest of the match the team did not score another point, while the All Blacks ran in two tries.

While the coaching staff may review the match and assess the crucial moments in the match that turned the tide against the team, I believe that the fundamental reason why the Springboks failed in their quest was because they were not able to shift quickly enough from an attacking to a defending mindset. Movement from attack to defend and back to attack is not easy to achieve. The reason is that energetically, defence and attack are mutually exclusive and opposite to each other. So a team tends to get stuck in one of these two worlds for too long during a match.

The team needed a double-edged sword of mental energy – attack AND defend. However, for this type of mindset to be created the team needed to activate the energetic shift to defence immediately after they had scored points/tries. In this way, the mindset is not attack or defend; but rather the shift or change from one state into another. While in theory the Springboks may have been aware of the required shift, simple basic and defensive errors (for example, not gaining possession at the kick-offs, and some crucial missed tackles) resulted in the team not reaching the Everest that it had set out for itself.

The coach, Heyneke Meyer, needs to be commended for setting out a game plan that resulted in the team scoring the required four tries. It is clear the he gave the team ‘permission’ to express themselves. He could have easily aligned himself with a safer option of just focusing on a win against the All Blacks. Instead, he asked the team to take a leap of faith and they responded in a committed way on the field. He can feel proud of the team. Excellent coaching!

The team needed to experience what it feels like to run in four tries against the defending World Champions. On reflection, the team will come to realise that it actually came close to achieving the near impossible task of what they had set out for themselves, which also included restricting the All Blacks.

The future looks rosy at the moment. To achieve further success, the Springboks need to integrate defence and attack into a holistic plan of action. Quickly shifting from one mindset to another during a match will make them unstoppable.

The brilliant Karoo night
The brilliant Karoo night

3 thoughts on “Attack and defend: A double-edged sword

  1. Iano

    Thank you Ken. Yet another insightful article

    It was indeed fantastic to see how the team really chased those 4 tries and achieving that against the World Champs, as you say, must have done so much for their mental mindset.

    I do however believe that the best team won – I doubt anyone denies this. That was seen last week in the two games that were played. The Springboks were comfortably leading the Aussies but needed 4 tries to keep in contention – camping on the Aussie try line, we couldn’t do it. The Kiwis had their backs against the wall in Argentina, they were jet-lagged – something we have to contend with playing them at home – they were down at the start of the second half, yet they managed to score their 4th try on 80 mins to push the Championship out of the Boks reach. A true World Champion team.

    I must say, I’m really excited for Bok rugby. We have a phenomenal set of youngsters coming through. Willie le Roux on the wing just made thing happen whenever he got the ball. What a talent!!

  2. tommy

    Hmmm – let us not forget LEADERSHIP – changing gear on the field in play and identifying the needed change in strategy … this can be prompted from the side-line (coaches) for the captain to implement – let us learn from profesional football, gridiron & basketball

  3. Ken I couldn’t agree with you more. The boks certainly are looking very promising indeed. They rose to the new game plan and the talent we have in South Africa makes for very exciting rugby. I agree that the goal set was high when one takes into account the caliber of the opposition however i do feel had we gone into the game with a mindset of exceeding what was required we may have taken the result to another level. The handling errors and scruffy play in the last ten minutes revealed to me that once the goal of scoring 4 tries was achieved the team allowed the situation to get on top of them. New Zealand are world class and they would certainly have played with the intention or goal of scoring more than the springboks needed. Sometimes we need to set the bench mark well above our needs to allow room for adjustment and should we fall short we have still attained. I do believe the leadership and commitment of all involved is to be commended and i certainly felt proudly south african. I too was impressed with Willie le roux and also the captainship shown by de villiers. It will be interesting to see how the team adopts a strong attack in the future without compromising their defence.

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