Our columnist Paul Williams is a fan of the latest Springbok tactic that has divided opinion
Not since Wayne Shelford tore his scrotum in 1986, has a ‘split’ in rugby caused such an upwelling of emotion. During the ‘Battle of Nantes’, Shelford had a part of his privates go public when a testicle popped through his scrotum and ended up hanging down one of his legs. Yet the Boks’ decision to field a 7-1 split of forwards on the bench against New Zealand has created way more headlines.
We should of course state that it was a forced tactical decision – the bench split, not the testicle thing. Injury was the root cause of this last-night-in-Vegas style gamble. But we can’t attribute the decision purely to injury. The Boks’ coaches must have felt that it was viable, if it wasn’t they wouldn’t have considered it. It’s also overly simplistic to suggest that the Boks only beat New Zealand due to this decision alone.
This was arguably the best rugby that the Boks have played in the last 18 months. Plus, we also saw Scott Barrett create a brain fart of such proportions that he nearly followed through. Quite why he thought he needed to shoulder a player on the ground, who was out of the game, is beyond many of us – except those on the citing panel who thought that it required no further action.
Whether it was a forced decision, or not, is largely moot. The 7:1 split did work. And it created a level of Bok domination over 80 minutes that we rarely see between the top teams in Tier One.
We all know that the Boks have the best set of forwards in the world. And they don’t just have one set, they have two. But up until this point we have only witnessed to the ‘Bomb Squad’ being brought onto the field en masse. With the 7-1 split we were given a glimpse of the ‘Oppenheimer squad’.
To see a nation like the Boks almost literally change their entire pack at once was at the same time awe inspiring and terrifying. Kind of like witnessing a pyroclastic flow tumbling down a mountain – it’s very easy to become mesmerised by it, but at the same time you need to react otherwise you’re going to get seriously hurt.
The reaction to the 7:1 split has been largely negative outside of South Africa. It has been seen as a tactic that simply cannot fail in its awesomeness. But it is far from a guaranteed success. Having one specialist back on the bench is as risky as telling a mob boss that his shiny suit looks a bit 1990s.
The 6:2 bench split, which is in itself a recent phenomenon, is already risky enough for most rugby supporters to start crumbling valium onto their stadium pie. A 7:1 split, for many in the stands, would require possible hospitalisation.
At best, with one injury to a back, you have a small juggling act to accomplish. With two injuries to your backs, you are now juggling like a jester dancing in front of Henry VIII – who’s just found his new wife necking a courtier down by the real-tennis court. With three injuries in the backs, you’re now juggling like a pissed-up octopus on meth.
It’s all very well saying that an openside flanker, with sevens experience, can ‘do a job’. But there’s doing a job and there’s doing it at elite Test level. I can potentially ‘do a job’ cooking lobster in a Michelin starred kitchen for ten minutes. Much longer than that, and people who paid £200 for the tasting menu, are going to be tasting very dangerous bacteria.
What happens if you get injuries when using a 7-1 split?
Players like Kwagga Smith, Michael Hooper and Justin Tipuric are stereotypically touted as players who could cover the 12 and 13 roles (let’s leave Levani Botia out of this as he’s the only true hybrid in the game).
And of course, they could, if they had played those roles for the whole of their careers. But defending in those roles is no joke. It’s not even an issue of pure defence. If a back-row forward is moved onto the wing, to limit defensive exposure/ damage, they are now exposed to the high ball. The high ball being arguably 70% of a back three player’s role in the modern game.
Then you have the nightmare situation of losing not merely a generalised position in the outside backs, but a specialist position like nine or ten. If you lose a nine or ten in a 7:1 split situation you’re in a mess. If you lose both you’ve essentially got your gums and lips wrapped around an agricultural muck spreader. If you need further evidence look up Mauro Bergamasco playing nine on YouTube.
It is of course unlikely that the 7-1 split will become a genuine option at Test level. But even it if does, we shouldn’t be clamping down on innovation like this. Rugby is nothing without innovation. How long will it be before we see the first lifting pod used on a cross field kick? After all there is no law against lifting in open play.
How long before we see forwards chipping the ball through from a pod of three carriers? When will we see scrum-halves packing down at eight on a five-metre attacking scrum – nullifying the need to transfer the ball from eight to nine with it instead being immediately in the nine’s hands with an eight standing outside?
Rugby thrives on innovation, and the 7-1 split is right up there with the best and most extreme examples we’ve ever seen. Long may it continue you beautiful South African geniuses.
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