DURBAN – Since the 2015 World Cup there has been a major shift in playing styles towards try-scoring rugby but will teams hit the World Cup default button and tighten up how they play in Japan?
In 2015, the All Blacks were miles ahead of the rest of the pack and this prompted the major rugby powers to start copying the kings, and four years later they have mostly got it right. It has no longer been about accumulating points via penalty goals and the occasional try but the other way around.
These days you very seldom see teams trying to manufacture a situation so that the flyhalf can kick drop goals … they rather push for the try.
I’m wondering if a lot of this positive progress towards entertaining rugby will perish in the excruciating heat of the World Cup cauldron.
It is inevitable that the pressure on teams to win (or go home) is going to see them tighten up their games, and at a World Cup, you are not chasing bonus points.
I suspect not all the willingness to attack we have seen over the last four years will go out of the window.
Looking specifically at the Springboks, they have historically had only one strategy at World Cups – subdue, suffocate and slot your goals – and because World Cups have been so tight, it has suited and worked for them on each occasion apart from 2003, which was a write-off.
Over the last two years we have seen the Boks at last break the chains of conservatism and they have played some sensational attacking rugby.
Rassie Erasmus has grown the Boks’ game to the point that in 19 games under him they have scored 56 tries, with 29 of that sum (just over 50 percent) being scored by the wings.
That has been achieved, very simply, because the Boks have a potent pack that can generate momentum, a flyhalf that dominates in his position, plus, crucially, there is a team mindset geared towards attacking space and using the width of the field.
I can’t see all of that being abandoned by the Boks in favour of grinding out wins via Handré Pollard’s boot. There will certainly be periods of that in games but when favourable situations arise the Boks will have a go.
In past World Cups they did not have the “willingness to attack” arrow in their quiver. They do now. The Boks are far better balanced in their play under Erasmus. We saw a cameo of this in the warm-up match against Japan where there was a deliberate ploy to kick so that the defence could be tested (an emulation of what is coming their way against the All Blacks) but when opportunities arose to use the ball, they were taken, with winger Makazole Mapimpi scoring a hat-trick.
The key to all of this is obviously the halfbacks, the primary decision-makers, but given the regal form of Pollard especially, this will hardly be a problem.