Boks eyeing breakdown
South Africa are prepared for a titanic breakdown struggle in their title-deciding Rugby Championship clash with New Zealand on Saturday.
This aspect of the game carries huge importance, and with the All Blacks set to welcome back talismanic captain and openside flanker Richie McCaw, the Springboks will need to be on the alert.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer sought out the services of Scottish breakdown specialist Richie Gray (not to be confused with the Scotland lock) for the 2013 season after his opening year in charge to shore up his side's proficiency around the tackle area.
The difference has been palpable, with the Boks positively rampant around the ruck, led by Bath fetcher Francois Louw.
Powerful number eight Duane Vermeulen has also been a major presence in that department, aided by hookers Bismarck du Plessis and Adriaan Strauss - both of whom are often termed extra back row players thanks to their ability to turn ball over.
South Africa forwards coach Johann van Graan put his side's upturn in fortunes down to a different attitude at the breakdown, but admitted that the Boks will face a supreme trial of their true prowess on Saturday.
"Both teams are very good at the breakdowns on attack and defence. After scrums, it is where the most penalties are conceded," said Van Graan.
"Any team in the world would like quick ball and, as we've shown this weekend, if we get quick ball we are a very dangerous team.
"We've made a change in mentality that all 23 players must be able to make the right decision at the breakdown.
"Even if you look at the weekend, when a guy like Gurthrö [Steenkamp] and Jean [De Villiers] start stealing ball that is where you want to be."
The Springboks went down 15-29 when the sides met in Auckland in September, and although van Graan feels there is room for improvement at the breakdown, he was pleased with his side's statistics.
"Attack wise we had exactly 100 breakdowns on our ball and we managed to win 96 of those, so that is quite good but we want to aim for 100 percent," added van Graan.
That Auckland clash saw the controversial sin-binning and subsequent sending off of du Plessis by French referee Romain Poite.
On Saturday, the man in the middle will be Welshman, Nigel Owens, and van Graan knows the Boks will need to stay disciplined.
"We had Nigel for two matches last year - in Perth against Australia and England at Twickenham - so we know what he is about. He is one of the world's best referees," stated van Graan.
"The message is always the same. We want to keep improving our discipline, we want to concede as little penalties as possible. In the last three Test matches we conceded less penalties than our opposition. There were some incidents in the previous two weeks, some were unfortunate and some we have to take a hard look at ourselves.
"The two yellow cards we conceded at Newlands cost us a lot of momentum. We can't afford to lose a player just before half-time because those first 10 minutes after half-time are very important, and we know you can't then get on the front foot.
"In the last 10 minutes of the game, it opens up. If you look at all of our results this year, we've won most second halves and we've scored tries in the last 10 minutes of games.
"In last weekend's game, we were without a player and only got him back for the last three minutes. Definitely our discipline is a massive focus for us, we want to be the most disciplined side in the world.
"When incidents happen on the field, we can only control what we can control. Discipline starts with ourselves."