RWC 2019 Match Review

Pool B

South Africa vs Italy

Venue: Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa
Kick-off: 18h45 local; 09h45 GMT; 11h45 SA time.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: Romain Poite (France), Alexandre Ruiz (France)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)

Back in April 2009 an incident occurred at a rugby match that gained some notoriety and is to this day known as Bloodgate.

On the 12thof April 2009 English club Harlequins were playing the Irish club Leinster in the Heineken Cup quarterfinal.

Seven minutes into the second half, Quins flyhalf Nick Evans suffered a thigh strain of some sort, and was replaced by Chris Malone. On the 27 minute mark, Malone tore his hamstring and had to leave the field. He was replaced by a winger, Tom Williams.

This left Harlequins with their only goal-kicking option being Mike Brown, the fullback, and not a regular goal kicker of any sort.

With eight minutes to go and Leinster leading 6 – 5, Brown lined up a shot at goal that would give Quins the lead, and possibly the match.

It was not a difficult kick for a regular goal kicker, which Brown was not, and he missed.

At the restart Tom Williams, the wing replacement for the injured Chris Malone, went down, and was then taken off the field bleeding profusely from the mouth. Being a blood injury, he could be replaced and the original flyhalf, Nick Evans, his thigh injury seemingly healed, went back on to try and win the game for Quins. He tried a drop goal, but missed and Leinster won the game.

That would, in most circumstances, be the end of the story. Quins season was over and Leinster move on to the semis.

But that is not where the story ended.

You see, someone was a little suspicious of the blood pouring from Tom Williams’ mouth as he left the field. In the moments before he left the field, there had not seemed to be all that much blood, the physio fiddled with his lip, and then there was blood. His mouth was smeared with blood. He had a tiny nick in his lip, but the blood seemed a bit much.

There was an investigation, and it was revealed that the physiotherapist who had run on to attend to the “injured” Williams, a fellow named Steph Brennan, had popped a capsule of fake blood into Williams’ mouth, who had then bitten on it to produce the bloody evidence of an injury.

Further investigation by the English RFU and by European Rugby Cup Ltd, the governing body of the Heineken Cup competition, revealed that Harlequins has used blood injuries as a reason for substitutions on four other occasions in the competition – all of them faked.

The club was fined £260,000, Physio Steph Brennan was given a two-year ban from working in rugby. Harlequins’ Director of Rugby Dean Richards was banned for 3 years, from all rugby world-wide. (Deans also resigned his job with Quins.) Club Chairman, Charles Jillings resigned from his position.

The club’s medical doctor, Wendy Chapman, who had made the nick on Tom Williams’ lip to provide cover for the fake blood was suspended by the British General Medical Council and had to appear before a disciplinary hearing.

And poor old “injured” Tom Williams received a 12-month ban, which he appealed and had reduced to 3 months, but carried the stigma of being a cheat to the end of his playing career.

And what has this whole story got to do with a Rugby World Cup Test Match between South Africa and Italy?

Plenty, although there was no blood involved.

When the Springboks announced their team to play against Italy, they sent a very clear message to the Italian brains trust.

The message read “Bring your biggest and best, we are going to hammer you up front!”

A six-two split on the bench provided 6 massive Springbok forward reserves, all starting forwards in their own right, eagerly waiting to make an impact later in the game.

The Italians knew that they were facing a massive test of their forward resources. 

They knew that their own 6 reserve forwards were probably no match for the quality on the Springbok bench.

Somehow they had to draw some of the sting out of that forward confrontation.

Without going so far as to directly accuse them of cheating, let me simply detail the events of the day:

In the very first scrum of the match, the starting Italian tighthead, Simone Ferrari, went off injured. He had somehow managed to pull his hamstring as he was bent double by the Beast Mtawarira.

On came a rookie, the 21-year old Marco Riccioni, to face the wrath of a fired up Beast and a snorting, stomping Springbok pack.

He did not last long.

10 minutes after coming onto the field, Riccioni attempted to tackle a rampaging Lood de Jager, and went down in a heap, clutching his ribs.

The Italian medics swarmed onto the field, and proceeded to strap his ribs firmly, with plenty of bandage. During the time he received treatment on his ribs, nobody looked at his head, asked him about his neck, made him count fingers, wiped his brow, or applied ice to the base of his neck, or anything to suggest that he had any form of head injury from the tackle. (Strangely, they had also not applied ice to his ribs, the very first action of every medic attending to a muscle or bone injury.)

Imagine everyone’s surprise when, just four minutes later, referee Wayne Barnes informed Springbok captain Siya Kolisi that Riccioni had gone off for a Head Injury Assessment and that there was no replacement available on the Italian bench, hence uncontested scrums would be the norm for the next ten minutes while the medics tested Riccioni for concussive injury. If the latter could not return there would be uncontested scrums for the rest of the game….

Needless to say, Riccioni did not return.

After 14 minutes of rugby, the Springboks were deprived of one of their major weapons in the game. The uncontested scrums made life a whole lot easier for the Italians. They could focus their efforts on contesting the rucks and mauls, and spreading forwards across the field as an extra line of defenders and ball carriers.

First are foremost, the game on the field changed dramatically – scrums and scrummaging are an intrinsic part of the game, not only do they provide a physical contest between the two packs of 8, they also serve to tie in defending looseforwards and create space for backs to move in, they are used to earn both attacking and defensive penalties. They also stamp the authority of one team on another, if that domination can be achieved.

Without having to contest the scrums the Italians were free to roam the field at will. (At least, in theory, but that is a different part of this match report.)

The uncontested scrums neutered one of the Springboks most powerful weapons.

Am I suspicious?

Damn right I am.

The Italians knew that the Springboks would use the scrum as a powerful weapon. They did not have to be rocket scientists to know that the Springboks had dominated the All Blacks in most of the set pieces just two weeks ago. They also knew that, despite their pride in being a competitive pack of forwards, they were not likely to be able to cope with the Springbok forward power. Uncontested scrums would be a wonderful solution to this problem!

Remember too that they are coached by an extremely clever Conor O’Shea – he who had stymied the English just a short while ago by not contesting rucks, and thus not creating an offside line – a move that infuriated Eddie Jones.  

I would suggest that World Rugby needs to take a very careful look at the matter of the two Italian tightheads and their injuries.

Perhaps it was all just a sorry coincidence, but it was a coincidence that changed the entire contest.

The fact that it did not have a huge impact on the game was thanks to two other factors.

The first – The discipline and physicality of the Springboks. As much as the uncontested scrums freed up the Italian loose trio to roam the field at will, so too it freed up the entire Springbok pack to roam as much as they desired.

Deprived of their scrummaging weapons, the Springboks simply ramped up the physicality. They became positively brutal as they smashed Italian ball carriers back time and again, the high/low dual tackle system giving the Italians no chance to build any momentum. Their own carries were equally brutally physical, sucking the Italians in to defend and defend again as the Springbok machine rolled inexorably forward.

While the Italians still had a full complement of 15 on the field they struggled manfully to contain the Springboks, yet the cracks were starting to appear. The Springboks scored two tries in that first half, but created a couple more opportunities that just missed the mark – this time it was Cheslin Kolbe’s wayward pass that deprived Willie le Roux of a try, a slightly mistimed kick through by Willie himself drifted into touch when it caught the side of his foot, a nano-second off in timing, if the kick had gone infield, it was a try. Pieter-Steph du Toit though he was over for a superb try, but Siya Kolisi had turned his back and obstructed a possible defender….

The writing was on the wall. Without the scrums, the Springboks were going to win this one, come what may.

Then the second game influencing factor stuck its nose over the horizon.

A mere two minutes into the second half a moment of sheer madness by two Italian props ended the game as a contest. Starting loosehead, Andrea Lovotti and replacement prop Nicola Quaglio, lifted Duane Vermeulen up off the ground and tipped him over till he was vertical to the ground, feet in the air. From there they dropped/drove him onto the ground. 

It was a horror spear tackle, one that could have had a disastrous impact on the life and career of Duane Vermeulen. One of the worst such incidents it has been my misfortune to witness.

There was not a shadow of doubt that this was one of the clearest red card incidents in all of rugby history.

The only question that the referee had to decide was which of the two props had to be sent off, or should it be both? He was kind, and chose to send off Lovotti and allow Quaglio to play on. Italian coach Conor O’Shea described the incident as “crass stupidity” after the match.

That moment ended the game as a contest – the 14 remaining Italians were not going to stop the Springboks as they simply stepped up yet another gear of brutally efficient rugby.

In a display of freewheeling and focussed (mostly) rugby, the Springbok forwards and backs combined to provide a spectacle of hard charging, passing, offloading, running and stepping as they simply demolished the Italian resistance.

Five more tries ensued.

The wholly committed and superbly combatitive Cheslin Kolbe scored a try in each half, while Bongi Mbonambi getting his in the first half too, while Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi, R.G. Snyman and Malcolm Marx also crossed to earn the Springboks an easy bonus point.

49 – 3 is a huge score, but in truth it could have been more. 

Much more. 

If Handré Pollard had goaled all his kicks at the posts, and if a couple of passes had stuck. If Kolbe’s pass had been accurate, if Pieter-Steph’s offload had been accurate……. If the cross kick for Pieter-Steph had just landed infield. If a couple of changes of direction had gone the other way, if the ball had not become slippery with the dew…..

By my conservative count, the Springboks left at least 4 tries out on the field.

At least 30 points went a-begging…………..

It did not matter against a completely demoralised Italy, but it also shows that the Springboks are not yet at their best!

If they continue to tighten up and get all their wheels rolling, the best is yet to come, and it could be very very good to watch.

Individual Player Assessments.

South Africa

Willie le Roux: 6

Strangely, a couple of the media pundits suggested that Willie had a bad day at the office. I personally thought it was one of his better performances in 2019. He might not be at his peak yet, but he was hugely influential as he played the link and playmaker role to perfection, using his vision and understanding of space on a rugby field to great effect and passing the ball out to the wider channels with alacrity. There was a return to the deftness of his passing, quick hands, quick steps, pace into space, and some great tactical chips and kicks. Had a hand or foot in a couple of the Springbok tries, and could have scored a try of his own in the first half if Cheslin Kolbe’s pass wasn’t slightly behind him. He is not yet error free, but he is certainly improving with each outing.

Cheslin Kolbe: 9

I am not sure what I can add to what you saw on your screen, or at the game if you were lucky enough to be there. Sheer mongrel, sheer commitment, inexplicably fearless, a magic touch that adds sparkle to the game of rugby. When he gets the ball, things just seem to happen.  On defence he has the bravery of a honey badger and the tenacity of a bull terrier. He had 11 tackles in this game! Under the high ball he is fearless, and focussed – that steal out of the arms of Sergio Parisse was sublime.  Spent the entire afternoon looking for work, popping up on the left wing and then in the midfield, then back on his own wing, and then at full back. Just has to be involved, all the time. I was surprised to see that he did not try and take over the hooking berth from Bongi!

Lukhanyo Am: 7

Vastly improved over the previous couple of weeks – he found the looseness of the game to his likening. He made some massive tackles and stayed in the contest to try and poach the ball on the ground, succeeding once. Got some ball in space and showed his turn of pace. Scored a try in the second half with an intercept that showed great anticipation. Was lucky that an early intercept attempt was not ruled a deliberate knock-down. 

Damian de Allende: 8

A big game from the inside centre. He seemed to find yet another gear as he dominated the midfield with some very good constructive rugby. Lost the ball in possession once, but that was a single blemish in a strong game. Made very good meters with the ball in hand, beating 5 defenders in the process, and demonstrated some sublime offloading in contact. Some powerful tackling. Continued to demonstrate his mongrel at the breakdowns, effective in slowing Italian ball, and staying in the contest with leg drives to attempt the counter ruck. Won a turnover in the process.

Makazole Mapimpi: 7

This was the kind of game that suits him down to the ground. For one, his defence did not let him down, for a change. Made his tackles, and scrambled on the cover very well. His constant pressure chase on the kicked ball, and his running skills were good to watch. Ran onto a superb chip ahead by Willie le Roux for his try. One of his better all-round Tests.

Handré Pollard: 6

Still not at his peak, but an improved performance as he managed the game well. Plenty of polished touches, with a couple of errors, especially being unable to hold the slippery ball after being thrown off balance by an ankle-tap.  Missed three kicks at goal, but that did not matter much. His tactical kicking was excellent, especially the couple of kick-passes out wide, one was slightly over-cooked, but the rest were spot on. Good distribution.

Faf de Klerk: 6

I am not always sure that I am watching the same game as a couple of the social media commentators. In the first 14 minutes, while the game was still being played as it was designed to be played, he was sublime. When the game loosened up after the “no-contest” decision, he continued to be all over the field, putting enormous pressure on the Italian halfbacks, tackling ball carriers with ferocity, and maintaining an accurate service to his receivers. He might be criticised for a couple of slow clearances off the base of the ruck, and one or two overly-rapid passes that were not quite as accurate as one would expect, but the rest of his game was spot on. His box-kicking might be faulted for not being pinpoint accurate, but it was that kind of game.

Duane Vermeulen: 7

It was a big game from the man nicknamed Thormeulen. He was brutal with the ball in hand and massive in the collisions. His tackling was just short of criminal assault. Won a good turnover-penalty. Was a good alternative option in the lineouts, and his power was evident in the mauls. Lucky not to be seriously injured by the spear tackle, but shook it off like a Rottweiler getting rid of some water.

Pieter-Steph du Toit: 7

Yet another big shift from the man with the heart of a buffalo bull. Seemed to be enjoying every second of the Test, judging by the permanent smile as he roamed the field tirelessly. A couple of really energetic kick chases, some massive tackles, some great ball-in-the-hand moments. One blemish was an offload that was just not quite accurate enough when the try was on. Scored his own try after having been called back from what looked to be his first of the game. There is not much more that one can say.

Siya Kolisi: 6

A decent shift for the captain, rapidly getting back to match-fitness and finding his form. A silly bit of obstruction cost P-S du Toit a try. Was superb on defence, and combatitive at the rucks, producing some of his trademark counter-ruck attempts. Still not quite on his A-game. 

Lood de Jager: 8

Finding the form that made him the best of the Boks at RWC 2015. A massive work-rate across the field, carrying, tackling, supporting, cleaning. He was also very good in the lineouts, although he did concede a silly penalty for playing his opponent in the air.

Eben Etzebeth: 7

Did exactly what one expects from the team enforcer. Robust in contact, with some brutal tackles and powerful carries. His tackling was as good as it gets, forcing, dominant and powerful as he hit the ball carrier back time and again. 

Was powerful in the mauls, and did his job in the line-outs as well.

Frans Malherbe: 6

I am truly astounded by one of the professional rugby writers who persists, week after week, in calling for Malherbe to be dropped. He has given the prop ratings of 3/10 in every game so far this season, and did so again yesterday. No, mate, it looks like a personal vendetta! Malherbe was massive in the early scrums, and then lifted his game in broken play as he covered an enormous amount of ground. Made some monstrous tackles, with his support play and cleaning really good. Powerful in the mauls.

Bongi Mbonambi: 8

If Malcolm Marx wants to be the first choice hooker in the games that lie ahead, he is going to have to produce a couple of truly sublime games! Bongi was exceptional. Made 15 tackles, carried the ball powerfully, controlled the mauls like a general, scored his almost obligatory try, and his lineouts were spot on. He has a way of inspiring those around him to extra effort.

Tendai Mtawarira: 7

Immediately established his dominance in the first scrum, and was probably the single reason for the Italian prop forwards departing the game. His support play in the drives and carries was superb, and he made a couple of massive hits. Oddly, did not carry the ball himself much. 

Replacements:

16 Malcolm Marx 6 (On for Bongi Mbonambi, 51st min)

Powerful and abrasive with ball in hand on and he scored a try as well. Perhaps a little off his poaching game at the rucks.

17 Steven Kitshoff 6 (On for Tendai Mtawarira, 46th min)

Made some good meters with the ball in hand, and made some of his trademark dominant tackles. Not much to report as his power in the scrums was not required. 

18 Vincent Koch 5 (On for Frans Malherbe, 46th min)

Not a game wholly suited to his strengths, he did what was asked of him and carried the ball well. Made some big tackles. 

19 RG Snyman 6 (On for Eben Etzebeth, 54th min)

A game suited to his style of rugby where he could carry, offload, and pass. Powerful display in the collisions and his willingness to support the quicker men on the run gave him his try.  

20 Franco Mostert 5 (On for Lood de Jager, 61st min)

Had some fun when he came on, and did what was expected of him, but nothing really special.

21 Francois Louw 6 (On for Duane Vermeulen, 65th min)

Did exactly what was expected from him. A nuisance over the tackles and breakdowns, slowed the Italian ball down, made his tackles, and ran good cover lines.

22 Herschel Jantjies 5 (On for Faf de Klerk, 61st min)

Strangely conservative when he arrived. None of the sparkling play around the fringes that we expect from him, although his service to his runners was quick and accurate. We expect moments of brilliance, but he was kinda ordinary.

23 Frans Steyn 6 (On for blood-binned Makazole Mapimpi, 43rd min and for Lukhanyo Am, 71st min)

Not really enough time to earn a proper rating, I have given him a rating based on his two stints on the field. Seems to be finding his match fitness. Chased one deep kick almost a full 80 meters at a sprint, and was not blowing much at the end. A quicker and sharper stint, but for a very short time.

Italy

I have not bothered to do a player-by-player analysis of Italy. This was a game where they thought they were in it to win it, and they were quickly deprived of that confidence as the Springbok pack simply smashed into them in the first 14 minutes, while the Springbok defence knocked the wind out of their sails too . Most of their attacks were individual efforts, without much coherent support. The fact that Sergio Parisse was substituted fairly early, and his face and body language as he left the field and then sat with his head down between his legs for the rest of the proceedings told of a team that had lost the game mentally.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Great report Bill!

    A few thoughts. Whilst we readily understand and accept that there is a fair difference between tighthead and loosehead props it is my opinion that any prop should be able to play on both sides in situations like this. The law is there for safety reasons. All prop forwards have similar training regimes and all should be safe enough anywhere in the front row. (Some may even argue the same about hookers?)

    There should be some form of “punishment” when the no-contest situation arises. Mallet spoke of the “offending” team having to send off one of their own?

    In terms of the spear tackle(s). I think Barnes was so concerned about causing minimum offence and comment that having decided to ping the one, he actually forgot about the other (equally guilty) offender

    • The techniques required for openside props versus blindsiders are vastly different. There are some that are comfortable on either side, such as Trevor Nyakane, but most struggle. Blindsiders often tend to be slightly smaller men, with a lower centre of gravity than the often enormous loosehead scrummagers – although this is not a hard and fast rule. (Taniela Tupou is an enormous tighthead.) But the real issue is the differing techniques, long bind, versus short bind, over versus under, pressure on the hooker (often illegal) versus taking pressure away. The wheel goes to the loosehead side, almost invariably, as it is easier for the loosehead to change the direction of the scrum while the tighthead only has to stay stable and not retreat. Shoulder pressure is different too, all of which make them highly specialised positions. Witness the difficulty Thomas du Toit has had in adapting from one side to the other.

      As for the issue of uncontested scrums – I am not sure what the answer would be – perhaps Mallett is right? If you are the cause of the uncontested scrums, you need to be penalised in some way. However, what is the penalty that will still ensure a fair contest? I do not know.

      What I do know is that the entire Rugby Law Book needs a rethink. From offsides to binding in the scrums, from obstructive dummy runners to challenges in the air, from the height of tackles to when a tackle is complete. The ruck has to be fixed, it is killing the game. What is fair contact to the head, and what is not? So many variables and so many contradictions in the Laws. They are strangling our game to death.

      • I am not suggesting that a prop can be effective on both sides. I am asserting that there is not the “danger” associated with having a “non-prop” in the front-row. The safety issue is largely around neck and shoulder issues. I believe any prop good enough to play for his country should not be at risk on the “wrong ide”!

        • I think Jon Harris, a real prop, answered this in his post on your question on Facebook. The impact of the scrum down in the club leagues is vastly different to the impact at the national and international professional levels. Already a salted, experienced, and powerful prop can “murder” a lesser individual who is practiced in a specific position, what could he do to someone who is not clued up in the technicalities of the other side of the scrum? I watched the Beast, weighing a good 15kg less than Taniela Tupou, take the Aussie apart in a Sharks/Reds game and then again in a Test. Tupou is the biggest of the Aussies, and third heaviest prop at the RWC, he is immensely strong, they do not call him the Tongan Thor for nothing, and he is a specialist tight-head, yet Beast’s technique and nous got the edge over him every time. The front row is a very very technical position, and switching sides is enormously difficult. Think of Coenie Oosthuizen and how he struggled to make it after switching to the tight-head. He was out of Springbok contention for almost three years. Think of Thomas du Toit’s struggles. It took Trevor Nyakane three years to master the switch too.