A physically superior England will send a punch-drunk Springbok side to the canvas at Twickenham on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI in London.
Bok coach Allister Coetzee has selected a pack geared for physical battle. Likewise, Eddie Jones has opted for an England forward combination that possesses more grunt than guile.
Yet, the contest at Twickenham will be about endurance and resolve as well as power. And after a spending the past few days at both team bases, I get the feeling that the local side is more likely to emerge from a bloody 80-minute boxing match with their hands held aloft.
A lack of belief can be fatal in a streetfight. This Bok side may appear to display plenty of passion, that is passion and respect for a Bok jersey steeped in tradition, but the reality is that they have lacked conviction in the buildup to the game in London and are, after a nightmare season, mentally shot.
The English media has rightly pointed out that history is irrelevant. The Boks haven’t lost to England in 10 years. So what?
In 2016, England have grown stronger with every performance and have won nine from nine. Meanwhile, the Boks have lost five from nine. That latter record includes a couple of historic defeats to Ireland and Argentina, as well as a record 42-point loss to the All Blacks at home.
The fact that the Boks are not in a good place has been plain to see. And forget about the cliches that have been dished out at South African press conferences in London this past week. The body language of the players and coaches has been more relevant.
Some coaches have taken their frustrations out on the media. On Monday, Coetzee got shirty with one South African journalist who had dared to suggest that he shouldn’t pick players out of position. Tuesday saw forwards coach Matt Proudfoot having a dip at an English scribe who questioned Warren Whiteley’s wilful ignorance of that 10-year record.
The Bok players, in general, appear to have no answers for the recent decline, and have given many the impression that they are going through the motions. That attitude appears to be in stark contrast with the coaches and players in the England camp. The Boks are clinging to cliches. The English are simply speaking the unpopular and brutal truth.
The Boks are going to lose this Saturday. And while it may not seem that big a deal after a season that’s already witnessed five defeats, the end of an unbeaten run against England will be something major to lament.
Jones delivered another colourful performance at the England press conference on Thursday. While it was entertaining and, in my personal opinion, a godsend after a week of insincere South African cliches, it was just as meaningless.
Indeed, there was more to be read into captain Dylan Hartley’s steely demeanour. Jones boasts a reputation as a hard taskmaster. The people I’ve spoken to this week say that Jones’s way may not be universally popular in the England set-up, but his results vindicate his methods.
And as Hartley himself reiterated, England have been preparing for this game for a long time. Not necessarily for the match against the Boks – although it does hold some importance, considering there is an opportunity to end a 10-year winless streak – but for the first match after their series-clinching victory against Australia in June.
England have been put through the wringer at several camps over the past four months. There was a story doing the rounds at last year’s World Cup that Jones had pushed his Japan side to an almost inhumane physical limit. The result against the Boks, a 34-32 win achieved via an injury-time score, vindicated his rabid approach to fitness.
England could benefit from that intensity in training as they look to take a bout against the Boks to the championship round, and then land the knockout blow. Make no mistake, England will win this weekend, and not by a split decision.
The Boks should get their punches in early on. They will stay in the contest in the first half. However, it’s in the second stanza where the collective clout of Jones’s England will start to make an impression.
Coetzee has had no choice but to select three ball-carriers in his back row. Those selections will boost the Bok lineout, an aspect of the game where England do look decidedly average.
But this will be a clash that is won and lost in the trenches. There will be injuries. Players will go off for blood and stitches.
The difference between South Africa and England is that the hosts have the squad to maintain their physical effort for 80-plus minutes. This statement is made with the bench combinations of both teams in mind.
It is also made on the basis of what’s been witnessed over the past week. If it does go to the wire, you wouldn’t back a team short on confidence, form and experience to pull through, especially away from home.
Not much has been made of the kicking battle this weekend, even though it could be game defining. Again, the physical dominance of England could lay the platform for the likes of Ben Youngs, George Ford and Owen Farrell to boot the hosts into good field positions. It wouldn’t surprise to see Elliot Daly sliding a few grubbers through either.
This Bok side has failed to diffuse high bombs all season, and will not be expected to prosper at a wet Twickenham this Saturday. While Coetzee has picked his best available side up front, he has got his selections wrong in the backline.
The more robust Rohan Janse van Rensburg should have been backed after a blockbusting performance against the Barbarians. The assistant coach of the make-shift side, Will Greenwood, subsequently described the Lions centre as a ‘cannon ball’ that could make a dent in England’s 10-12 combination.
Bryan Habana has failed a fitness test, despite the Bok management’s assurances that he was fit and available on Tuesday. Willie le Roux has been favoured for his left boot in an otherwise right-foot heavy side. Still, one feels that Johan Goosen could have offered more as as a long-range goal-kicker and line-kicker from the back.
What’s more, England possess the form goal-kicker in the world in their starting side, and one of the all-time great sharpshooters on their coaching staff.
Owen Farrell has been in sublime form for Saracens, the English and European champions, and England this season. Jonny Wilkinson, the kicking coach, will want to see Farrell and England succeed given that he featured in three of those 12 losses since 2006.
Coetzee’s Boks lost to Ireland at home for the first time earlier this year. They lost to the Pumas for the first time in Argentina, and to the All Blacks by a record score in South Africa.
The lengthy injury list as well at the patent and detrimental lack of experience and nous in the coaching staff will contribute to a landmark loss to England on Saturday. The defeat will ensure that the Boks’ tour to Europe is remembered as a failure, and edge them towards a season win record of less than 50%.
For Jones and his England charges, the result will mark an 11th-straight win and give some cause to talk up their next meeting against the top-ranked All Blacks as a real contest rather than a foregone conclusion.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: England 12 , Boks 23, Draw 2
In England: England 8, Boks 11, Draw 1
England – 15 Mike Brown, 14 Marland Yarde, 13 Elliot Daly, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Jonny May, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Tom Wood, 6 Chris Robshaw, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Mako Vunipola.
Subs: 16 Jamie George, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Kyle Winckler, 19 Dave Atwood, 20 Nathan Hughes, 21 Danny Care, 22 Ben Te’o, 23 Jonathan Joseph.
Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Francois Venter, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 JP Pietersen, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Willem Alberts, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Nizaam Carr, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Johan Goosen, 23 Lionel Mapoe.
Photo: Tom Shaw/Getty Images