South Africa visit Twickenham on Saturday in what can truly be described as one of the oldest sporting clichés from an England perspective: “must win” may not even do it justice. Lose this one and all that’s left is the All Blacks, a game that would almost be over before it started after two losses against inferior opposition. After the optimism and confidence in the build-up to the Australia game last weekend, the disappointment of a sub-par performance has been all the more acute. So, in what is quite possibly the most important game of Stuart Lancaster’s tenure so far, can England lift themselves up, dust themselves off, and bounce back with a win against the Bokke?
Reasons to back England
Lancaster has rung the changes. Although the temptation to write them off as a rash reaction to a poor performance is strong, closer scrutiny reveals some clever selections. Marler was dismantled last week and against the mighty Springbok front row the more experienced Corbisiero would have been the right choice even if the Quins-man had been fit. Joe Launchbury will be in for a rough ride but all the signs so far point to him being capable and ready for it. Tom Wood will add more competitiveness at the breakdown, as well as more go-forward with ball in hand, as will James Haskell if required from the bench. Waldrom can count himself a little unlucky to have been dropped but Ben Morgan will offer something a bit different from the base of the scrum, which could be a canny selection in the face of the Springboks’ relatively one-dimensional game plan.
In the backs Ben Youngs gets his chance after Danny Care failed to replicate his Harlequins form on the international stage. Youngs’ partnership with Flood will be intriguing to watch; the scrum-half often makes little sideways darts from the base of breakdowns, and no-one can read these better than Flood, quite often turning them into clean breaks. On the wing Mike Brown is selected out of position, but it so nearly worked with Foden over the summer against the same team, so why not try it again? If it doesn’t work there is always the exciting prospect of Jonathan Joseph to come off the bench. All in all, it is an encouraging selection from Lancaster.
Reasons to back South Africa
Changes are all very well, but the new men are going to have to be significantly more aggressive than those who failed to boss an underwhelming Aussie pack last week. South Africa have the most daunting forwards in world rugby, and they will arrive with the confidence of two wins at their back. Those two wins may not have been the most spectacular performances ever, but they have shown the grit and determination that is typical of the Bokke mindset to get over the line with a squad that is far from complete.
Ruan Pienaar is in fine form, and there is arguably no better a scrum half in world rugby at controlling the game behind a dominant pack. He may not make the breaks that some 9s do, but he will make sure the Springboks play in the right areas of the field. Outside him Pat Lambie is maturing well, and offers significantly more in attack than his predecessor Morne Steyn. Jean De Villiers will be typically abrasive in midfield, and watch out for fleet-footed centre Juan de Jongh outside him, a man who can certainly make Tuilagi pay if he finds himself out position in defence.
What could be seen as a controversial plus for the South Africans is the continued selection of Owen Farrell on the bench. They can be certain that if after 65 minutes they are ahead, there won’t be any game-changing attacking talent stepping into the play-maker’s role for England. The only disappointing part of Lancaster’s selection this week has been the leaving out of Freddie Burns; the safe instead of the bold.
It is a very tough match to call. If England can gain parity in the forwards then they have a great chance, and the first 10 minutes will be particularly vital in setting the tone for the match. Last week everyone expected England to dominate up front, and when that didn’t happen early on the Aussies visibly grew in belief, something that ironically will have given Lancaster hope going into this weekend. However, if the South African pack gets on top straight away, they will control the game and win fairly comfortably. I have a nagging feeling, though, that England will have been stung into action after last weekend, much like the Aussie team that beat them. As a result I am, cautiously, going for England by 2 points.