While Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus’ six-two split on the bench has brought sexy back to the tight five, and Jacques Nienaber has introduced method to the rush defence’s madness, the Boks’ conditioning at the Rugby World Cup probably hasn’t gotten as much love as it should have.
As our collective jaws have dropped at the relentless physicality of the Springbok pack, as well as a defence that presented the opposition attack with nothing but blind alleys, many of us may have overlooked the fact that lung-busting conditioning was the launching pad from which Erasmus’ demanding game plan was executed.
But from the moment the world champions – being the first team to arrive and the last to leave at the World Cup was a metaphor of sorts, endurance-wise – set foot in Japan, there were broad hints as to their superior conditioning.
There were the last 10 minutes of the friendly against hosts Japan where they scored two tries despite having a man in the sin bin; there was the high-octane first half in the quarterfinals against the same opponents, where they only conceded three points against arguably the best attacking team in the competition while down to 14 men; and then there was the 26-phase shutout of England around the 30th minute in the final.
A big part of why the Boks’ conditioning has come in for less mention than that of Japan, New Zealand and England is because Erasmus has kept his conditioning coach, Aled Walters, so much of a secret weapon that he didn’t once allow him to speak to the media.
But much like the picture of a shredded Bok squad went viral prior to the World Cup, the Welshman’s influence hasn’t gone completely unnoticed, and one of the people who did notice was his 2007 predecessor, Mark Steele.
“If you look at the team overall, there’s no doubt there have been big improvements in the conditioning,” said Steele.
“Not a lot of people understand that, with conditioning, you have a very small window of opportunity to get what you want right. They’ve got it right, and hats off to them.
“In my experience over the past 15 years, your biggest results come when you’ve got confidence in what you do and can impart your knowledge to a group or individual in a meaningful way in which they can see the gains.
“There’s a massive personality relationship that goes on and I’m pretty sure that’s where his strengths are. It’s not like there are secrets or anything like that.”
Steele said the conditioning had been the key to the Springboks’ physicality and the unyielding nature of their defence.
“You could see it in the end results. The Springboks were really comfortable in their defence, and had confidence in their physicality and conditioning because they knew they could handle whatever was thrown at them. When they went to all those phases in the final defending close to their goal line, they were never really stressed. They worked hard, but it wasn’t like they were ever really stressed. They had a real confidence about them, and that’s from their conditioning.”
Steele said it was tough to rank the Boks as the best-conditioned team at the tournament simply because they were the last team standing because sides tend to be conditioned in different ways.
His example was how Scotland failed to impose their game plan on Japan simply because they couldn’t outmuscle them, while the Boks could do just that, and Japan’s take-away from their Last 8 match against South Africa being that working at a breakneck speed and intensity alone wasn’t enough.
“There’s no one thing you can rely on as a conditioning coach – you’ve got to have more than one arrow to your quiver. Looking at New Zealand, they’re probably the one team able to play in various styles.”
The Bok players have been waxing lyrical about training at an intensity that is above that of game level, with Walters praised for finding innovative fitness games to keep the eight reserves and eight players not in the match-day squad interested.
“Conditioning coaches quantify an individual’s performance by looking at what their workloads and outputs are and what their intensity needs to be – the point being that your efforts and outputs must outstrip the opponent’s so you can transfer pressure on to them. It’s a style of training John Mitchell tried at the Bulls, and New Zealand and Japan are also using it.”
The upshot of all of this is that the rest of the free world is now confronted with the idea of a Bok team that is still traditionally big, but won’t go away when the intensity is turned to white-hot.
“In the past, South African teams have been big and bulky, but opponents were able to wait for their ‘tyres to go flat’ as the game wore on, but they never go away now.”