Thursday, 13 November 2014

Autumn International Preview - England v South Africa

Remember the good old days, around 2002?  I refer to them as the good old days for plenty of reasons – skateboarding, excessively gelled hair, the Offspring, Eminem and, of course, England dominating all in world rugby.  But there was one side who England seemed to have a particular hoodoo over – South Africa.  Yes, between June 2000 and November 2006 (creeping into the ‘bad old days’), England played the Springboks 7 times, and won 7 times, including once in the World Cup and once in Australia, with the pinnacle being a 53 – 3 demolition at HQ in 2003.  How times change.
England have beaten the All Blacks in 2012, and have beaten the Wallabies a fair few times too, but they have failed to beat the South Africans since that winning streak ended in November 2006.  The week after that win at Twickenham, the two teams met again and the Springboks began a run of 11 matches without defeat against the men in white, with just the one draw blemishing their perfect record.  It is a phenomenal record, and one that indicates that these two teams don’t just beat each other on and off – they dominate one another.
And dominate is certainly a suitable term to be used in recent fixtures.  Even in the games where England have been close, or unlucky not to win, there is always a feeling that the Boks are just one notch higher in terms of physicality – they are masters in the art (and yes, it is an art) of bullying.  They slipped up last week against a fired up Ireland side, but that will have only served to wind them up for their trip to Twickenham on Saturday.  England must be prepared, and be ready to meet the waves of prime South African beef that the Boks will throw at them.
The key for England will be to stop the big runners like Vermeulen, Strauss and Burger, before they can get up any steam whatsoever.  That means avoiding going high in the tackle, where they can wrestle and drive their legs, but chopping down at the ankles and having the second man in get over the ball, if only to slow it down a split second.  If the Boks get cut down behind the gainline, then they do seem to be limited on ideas, as they showed in Dublin.  In attack, England can look to the likes of big Billy Vunipola for that initial surge, but then they should look to move the ball wide and deep to their dangerous runners – like Kyle Eastmond, Jonny May and debutant Anthony Watson, where they can exploit big men in the middle or simply have a crack on a one-on-one situation with their opposite numbers. 
But, as usual, we have to look to the pack for the key battle here.  They will need to guided by better kicking games than they were both subjected to last week, but we can safely expect a ferocious battle between the two back rows as neither side wants to take a backward step.  We can conjecture all we want about runners and wide-passes and kicking games, but this is England v South Africa.  It boils down to who can take the biggest hits and get back up again. 
Some things never change, it seems.
England Team News
Anthony Watson will make his first international start when he replaces injured Bath team-mate Semesa Rokodunguni on the wing for England's Test against South Africa on Saturday.  The 20-year-old's inclusion is the only change to the starting XV that lost 24-21 to New Zealand last weekend.   Harlequins wing Marland Yarde is promoted to the replacements' bench.
Starting Line up:  Mike Brown (Harlequins); Anthony Watson (Bath), Brad Barritt (Saracens), Kyle Eastmond (Bath), Jonny May (Gloucester); Owen Farrell (Saracens), Danny Care (Harlequins); Joe Marler (Harlequins), Dylan Hartley (Northampton), David Wilson (Bath), Dave Attwood (Bath), Courtney Lawes (Northampton), Tom Wood (Northampton), Chris Robshaw (Harlequins), Billy Vunipola (Saracens)
Subs:  Rob Webber (Bath), Matt Mullan (Wasps), Kieran Brookes (Newcastle), George Kruis (Saracens), Ben Morgan (Gloucester), Ben Youngs (Leicester), George Ford (Bath), Marland Yarde (Harlequins
Key Player
Dave Attwood.  From struggling to nail down a club spot at Bath, it is impossible to overstate the strides that Dave Attwood has made over the last 18 months or so.  He’s become the enforcer that the West Country side need, and the early indications are that he is exactly what England need in that regard, too, having been given the opportunity because of injuries to three locks.  The ultimate test of his ‘enforcefulness’, however, will come against the Springbok pack – simply put, they don’t get any bigger of more aggressive than what England will be facing on Saturday.  England simply cannot afford to lose the physical battle nor get intimidated, and Attwood will play a key part in leading from the front and putting down a couple of markers of his own.
South Africa Team News
Five changes have been made to the team that began in the 29-15 defeat in Ireland last weekend.  Along with World Cup winners JP Pietersen and Schalk Burger, hooker Adriaan Strauss and the half-back pair of Cobus Reinach and Pat Lambie, move from the bench.  The men they replace – Bismarck du Plessis, Oupa Mahoje, Francois Houggard, Handre Pollard and Cornal Hendricks – all drop to the bench.
Starting Line up:  Willie Le Roux, JP Pietersen, Jan Serfontein, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Pat Lambie, Cobus Reinach, Tendai Mtawarira, Adriaan Strauss, Jannie du Plessis, Eben Etzebeth, Victor Matfield, Marcell Coetzee, Schalk Burger, Duane Vermeulen.
Subs: Bismarck du Plessis, Trevor Nyakane, Coenie Oosthuizen, Bakkies Botha, Teboho "Oupa" Mohoje, Francois Hougaard, Handre Pollard, Cornal Hendricks.
Key Player
Duane Vermeulen.  The big number 8 admits that complacency may have been a factor against the Irish, but you can bet that his side won’t be making that again.  Vermeulen has arguably been the best number 8 in the world this year, with his huge power and surprisingly deft hands – allied with an unexpected turn of pace – making him a real handful in the wider channels and in congested areas.  Worryingly for England, he will be fired up for this one, and he is one of the key ‘ignition points’ of South Africa’s gameplan; all their momentum starts with him.  Chop him down early, and a key source of front foot ball is gone.  Warning: Ensure that your dentures are securely in, because the collisions between him and Vunipola are sure to rattle some teeth.
Key Battle
Danny Care v Cobus Reinach.  The battle between these two exciting running scrum halves is intriguing because it will not come down to can squeeze through the most gaps – rather, who can execute their common relative weakness, the box kick, with the greatest accuracy.  Both nines are renowned for their sniping breaks and aggression around the fringes, but Care kicked poorly last weekend and was a key part of England’s loss, failing to provide an escape route with either contestable up-and-unders or long-distance clearances over the top of the back three.  Likewise, Reinach is not renowned for having a reliable kicking game either and, as a relative newbie to the international game, he will really need to nail this aspect of his performance.  In a game where the packs will be arm-wrestling for every scrap of possession, the ability to execute this rather unsexy part of their game effectively will be absolutely key.  Danny Care may want fireworks on his 50th cap, but any game against South Africa requires a big dose of practicality.
For 8 long years, South Africa have been England’s bogey team – but this is arguably their best chance to pick up a win against the mighty Springboks.  The England pack may have been outsmarted by the All Blacks – and they certainly weren’t helped by their sub-par kicking game – but they certainly were not outmuscled, despite the amount of injuries that are afflicting the pack in particular.  Previous England sides have been bullied up front but I can’t see that happening here, partly due to the absences of the likes of Francois Louw and Willem Alberts and partly due to the increasing grizzle in the England 8, and – if they improve their kicking game – I can see them picking up points and a narrow win.  England by 4.
What else has the weekend got in store for us?
Italy v Argentina:  This one has been moved to the Friday afternoon due to flooding concerns, but it doesn’t change my prediction of a nail-bitingly tight encounter.  Argentina were really poor last week but I don’t see them making the same mistakes again.  Pumas by 3.
Wales v Fiji:  I don’t think we’ll be seeing any repeat of 2007 here, but Wales must use this game as a chance to practice controlling encounters – something they failed to do against Australia.  Wales by 22.
Scotland v New Zealand:  It may be a completely different All Blacks side but I suspect that we’ll see the same result – a solid win for the visitors, although there is no doubt that the Scots are looking vastly improved.  All Blacks by 17.
France v Australia:  In the other really intriguing game of the weekend, we have a difficult one to call.  Have the French really turned a corner after that display against Fiji?  I’m not sure if they have, whilst Australia already look full of beans under Cheika.  Australia by 6.
Ireland v Georgia:  Ireland haven’t announced their team yet but, regardless of who trots out, they should have way too much class for the physical Georgians.  Ireland by 35.
And don’t forget there’s a round of Aviva Premiership action taking place as well – I’m expecting wins for Gloucester, Northampton, Sale, Bath, Saracens and Wasps.

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