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SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: How England can defuse South Africa’s ‘bomb squad’ in Saturday grudge match

SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: How England can defuse South Africa’s ‘bomb squad’: high tempo, keep the ball in play and hope we don’t miss Mako Vunipola too much in the front row

  • Rassie Erasmus pioneered the six-two split of forwards to backs on the bench
  • Erasmus often names six superior forwards as sub so he can bring them on
  • The theory goes, South Africa’s first-choice pack then finish on the field of play
  • Eddie Jones must work out how to defuse the ‘bomb squad’ if England are to win


Rassie Erasmus won’t be at Twickenham on Saturday – in fact, if his ban stands he will miss match days for the Boks until the end of next summer – but his legacy will clearly be in evidence.

Let’s put aside the nonsense that badly marred a disappointing Lions series and led to his ban this week. 

I want to acknowledge what a clever and influential coach he is and, although South Africa have not always been easy on the eye under him, they won the World Cup, beat the Lions and after a dodgy spell in the Rugby Championship, signed off with a great win over New Zealand.

Rassie Erasmus’ South Africa side successfully pioneered the use of the ‘bomb squad’ tactic

The Springboks often replace their entire front row very early in the second half - the theory goes that it is advantageous to finish the match with your first-choice forwards on the pitch

The Springboks often replace their entire front row very early in the second half – the theory goes that it is advantageous to finish the match with your first-choice forwards on the pitch

Having dealt pretty comfortably with Wales and Scotland, they are looking to finish off an epic season by beating England. 

My instinct is to rage against their famed bomb squad. 

Too many replacements are allowed in rugby and it skews the battle to find out not just who is the best team, but also who is the fittest team over 80 minutes.

However, the laws are as they are and the clever coach recognises that, even while perhaps disagreeing with them. So I can only say his introduction of the bomb squad – five or six quality forwards off the bench early in the second half – has more often than not proved to be masterly.

Most games between the top nations are very close on 50 minutes, the margin is a score or less. That means almost all the games between top countries are decided in the final half hour.

So there is a logic to having some of your best players coming on for that final half hour, firing on all cylinders. If you can bring on a front five and perhaps even a back row man who are better than those on the pitch, it makes a big difference.

South Africa are probably the only team on the planet with the strength in depth up front to pull it off. Their front row options on the bench are, to my eyes, better than their starting front row.

England coach Eddie Jones will have to find out a way to defuse the inevitable bomb squad

England coach Eddie Jones will have to find out a way to defuse the inevitable bomb squad

Franco Mostert is also one of the best locks in the world and their back row will lose nothing with the introduction of Jasper Wiese. So the theory is fine but getting it to work is the tricky bit because you are dealing with big egos and perceived norms.

The starting front row have to buy into the plan and acknowledge the guys on the bench are probably the first choices. That also means the blokes on the bench must swallow their pride and accept they will not be starting big games. 

That will have taken some getting used to and requires careful management by the coach and director of rugby.

I once tried something similar in Rome against Italy. Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Phil Vickery were not impressed and didn’t see the need for such messing around. 

I discontinued the experiment – it was a step too far at the time – but I secretly longed to do it again against a really big side like the Boks in South Africa or France in Paris. That would have been the acid test.

So how do you combat such tactics and defuse the bomb squad? The key is to start fast and ensure the game is not close with half an hour to go. Take South Africa out of their comfort zone and mess with the plan. Don’t let the game unfold as they wish.

Sir Clive Woodward thinks England look light in the front row and could miss Mako Vunipola

Sir Clive Woodward thinks England look light in the front row and could miss Mako Vunipola

England need to be out of the blocks fast, play at a high tempo and be clinical. It will require an intense, concentrated effort. And they need to massively up the ball-in-play time. It was way too low against Australia. 

That would suit South Africa. England must speed everything up because, after a bright start against the Aussies, they got dragged into a slow game that didn’t play to their strengths with a back division spearheaded by Marcus Smith.

Although I am not a fan of multi-phase attacks for the sake of them, at least when you do retain possession the opposition have to dance to your tune. That could reap rewards later in the game.

The pack must make sure scrums are quick and efficient without the endless resets that take huge chunks of time out of the game. If you are going to concede possession on their put in, it’s better to do it quickly and get the game restarted than to spend two minutes faffing around.

You beat the Boks by matching them in every department up front, keeping the tempo high, stretching the play and making them think. Hit them with something they’re not expecting.

My biggest concern is the front row. Eddie has not picked Mako Vunipola, who has played in five of Saracens’ seven games this season. That decision rests squarely on Eddie’s shoulders if it backfires. My biggest hope is that this game ignites the real England and inspires a performance for the ages. I don’t think it’s far away.   

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