England to meet Boks head on

Eddie Jones remains confident that his charges will match the Springboks’ physicality and claim their first win against South Africa in 10 years on Saturday, reports JON CARDINELLI in Bagshot.

‘Hang on, let me tell you a story …’ began Jones, as he shifted in his seat and then waited for the laughter inside the press conference room to die down.

On Thursday, Jones was asked by local journalists about England’s recent record against the Boks, a winless run that stretches back to 2006. He was asked what the hosts needed to do to beat the Boks, and why he had favoured Chris Robshaw, Tom Wood, and Billy Vunipola in the back row.

SARugbymag.co.za asked the England coach for his view on the Boks’ back-row selections, and for his thoughts on the absence of a genuine openside flank in the Bok starting side. Coach Allister Coetzee has, admittedly due to a series of injury setbacks, selected Willem Alberts and Pieter-Steph du Toit on the flanks for the clash at Twickenham on Saturday.

Jones understands the South African game and mindset all too well. He worked with the Boks for the duration of their successful World Cup campaign in 2007 and, as he reminded journalists on Thursday, remains good friends with Coetzee to this day. Jones also mentored modern greats such as Fourie du Preez, Danie Rossouw and Schalk Burger when the South Africans played under him at Suntory Sungoliath in Japan.

‘You blokes keep banging on about it, but there hasn’t been an opensider in the Bok back row for years,’ Jones said. ‘Even Schalk Burger wasn’t a true openside. And he had a six on his back – you guys can’t even get the number right.

‘Look, Nos 1 to 15 have to be able to contest for the ball at the breakdown. They have to be able to make good decisions. You ask whether the absence of an openside changes our plans [in terms of how we want to attack], well, it does not.

‘Let me tell you a story,’ he continued, much to the delight of those present. While Jones can be strict and serious, especially with his players, he's been known to entertain the media with his colourful jokes and anecdotes. And in the latter respect, Eddie the Entertainer was in top form on Thursday.

‘Myself and Jake White were at a conference in Japan a few years ago. Jake was talking about his selections and the mindset in general.

‘Now, as you know, if a player is not six-foot-six in South Africa, he is shown the door. That’s the mindset. Well, Jake was going on about how props have to be at least six-foot tall as they needed to be able to lift the locks [to a specific height] in the lineout.

‘It was at that moment when one of the Japanese stuck up a hand and asked what could be done if there weren’t any six-foot props in their squad. “Pray”, was Jake’s response.’

While Jones evidently enjoyed relaying this story as well as his own understanding of the South African rugby psyche, he was determined to clarify that his England side sets equally high standards at the gainline.

‘It’s funny when you hear people going on about the physicality,’ he said. ‘If it’s not physical, you should be playing volleyball or doing curling or something like that. Rugby is all about vying for dominance at the gainline.

‘We’re not surprised that they went for guys like Alberts and Du Toit in the back row,’ Jones continued. We knew they were going to do that. They always go for size. In a sense, they have gone back to the past to go to the future.’

That latter sentence could be taken as a compliment. By their own admission, the Boks have not performed at the gainline over the past season. And really, when one looks at the makeup of the England back row, it's clear that Jones has favoured a combination that is more physical at the tackle than anything else.

England captain Dylan Hartley wore a stern expression for the duration of the press conference. He didn’t flinch when he was told about the visitors’ 10-year record or their reputation as the bullies of world rugby.

‘We just want to keep progressing,’ Hartley said. England have won their last 10 matches, a run that includes a Six Nations title as well as a 3-0 series triumph in Australia.

’We’ve prepared as well as we can, and are feeling confident ahead of the next challenge. You blokes [the media] can decide who are the favourites for this one. That’s not up to us.’

Jones was happy to play the role of entertainer at Thursday’s press conference. Yet, having watched England train with intensity and purpose at Pennyhill Park on Thursday morning, one gets the impression that they are hell-bent on beating the Boks and snapping that winless streak.

Indeed, there was something to be read into Hartley’s focused demeanour at the subsequent press conference. England have not played a Test match since June. They have been preparing for this clash with the Boks for a long time, and aren’t about to waste a golden opportunity to claim a win.

Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli