One defeat and two victories so far in this Investec International series will no doubt have left England fans content. The loss to New Zealand was a blow but England were not completely outclassed; the win over Australia signalled the coming of age of a team that has improved dramatically in the last six months; and then finally against Samoa they showed that they are able to win the gritty contests as well as play eye-catching rugby. Therefore, confidence on Saturday should be high, as England look to notch their first win over the Springboks since 2006.
It has, to say the least, been a rather up and down tour for South Africa. There were major positives: the wins over Wales and Ireland given the number of injuries they are carrying were really quite impressive. However losing Bryan Habana, the drug test mishap which saw Bjorn Basson and Chiliboy Ralepelle sent home, and then last weekend losing to Scotland at Murrayfield have all formed into one big psychological hit. It is a testament to the depth of talent in South African rugby that they can bring in players of high quality, and challenge anyone even without the likes of Jaque Fourie, Fourie du Preez and Schalk Burger. The hurt from last weekend should have galvanised the squad ahead of facing England on Saturday, but the pressure is on.
What to expect:
England really should not have it as easy in attack as they did when they faced Australia. The pace of Ben Youngs and Chris Ashton are now well known threats internationally, and where David Pocock was ineffective at slowing down England’s ball when on the attack, Juan Smith will look to go one better. Also, where England persistently battered the obvious defensive chink in the Wallaby back line, the 10-12 channel shared by Quade Cooper and Matt Giteau, there will be no such weakness in that area against Morne Steyn and Jean de Villiers.
South Africa’s power has not been lost, and whilst their lineout hasn’t been at its best, it’s still a significant threat. Many might see them as a weakened force but the strength of Pierre Spies and others is not to be forgotten. How they will play though is hard to predict. They are more than capable of playing Blue Bulls 10 man rugby, but there are also threats out-wide. Lwazi Mvovo’s star has risen dramatically following an impressive Currie Cup campaign with the Sharks, and Gio Aplon showed through the Super 14 what an impressive engine he has. Add to all this Frans Steyn’s howitzer of a boot at 13, and there are still options for them despite missing personnel.
All eyes on:
Coming up against Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield at Twickenham would have been a dream for Courtney Lawes two seasons ago. He is slowly but surely cementing his position at this level, and the experiences of playing against Brad Thorn, Nathan Sharpe and Dean Mumm over the last few weeks have kept him learning and feeling his way into test rugby. Opposition players don’t come much more physical than Botha, and that is the kind of contest that Lawes seems to relish. He possesses the perfect mix of respect for his opposition, but confidence that he can beat anyone on the day.
Lwazi Mvovo had a pretty forgettable debut experience at Murrayfield in conditions that were vastly different from the heat of KwaZulu-Natal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get any easier, as this weekend he will make his first appearance at Twickenham, coming up against the in-form Chris Ashton. He will be an unknown quantity not just to England supporters but perhaps to the England management. His pace is electric, but his defence suspect, and there is an area of opportunity on that wing for England to exploit.
Head to head: Nick Easter v Pierre Spies
Plenty of possibilities for this week’s head to head, but the chosen confrontation is the one between Easter and Spies. Easter captained England for the first time in a test match last weekend and seemed to relish the experience, coming away with a beautiful shiner on his left eye after the Samoans showcased their typical aggression. Unfortunately, that level of intensity is not set to wane against the Springboks, and especially when confronted by the remarkable human specimen that is Pierre Spies. The Blue Bulls number eight has taken athleticism in this sport to a whole new level. His size does not diminish his pace, which is equivalent to that of a centre, and Easter will have as much of a challenge of getting past him as he will containing him in defence. A mouth-watering clash.
Nick Heath caught up with the England no.8 at Pennyhill Park:
Weather: Cloudy, and freezing. Gloves and scarves essential.
Last year’s result: The last match-up between these two sides was on 22nd November 2008, England 6-42 South Africa.
England have been in such fine form this Autumn that they probably feel that they can take on and beat anyone. But, South Africa are a wounded beast, raging from last week’s loss to Scotland. Peter de Villiers’ job is under pressure, and if the Boks do not produce a top performance then the sack is not out of the question for the controversial head coach. Twickenham could be becoming a fortress again, whilst the Springboks are enduring a horrible couple of weeks. For that reason, England by 8.
By Ben Coles | Picture: Patrick Khachfe/Onside Images