Loose Pass

Date published: June 28 2016

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with two countries with new coaches, moving in vastly different directions…

England and South Africa as a rugby relationship has had its ups and downs. From the English victories of the Woodward era – including that 50-point drubbing – to the 2007 World Cup final and with many a bruising slugfest before, between and after, the two countries are well-acquainted. There’s no love lost on occasion, but there’s plenty of mutual respect.

The clash scheduled for Twickenham on November 12 should have been the baptism of fire in England’s November internationals. But after England’s glittering all-action whitewash of Australia, matched up against South Africa’s squeaky bum series victory over an Ireland side shorn of many a star, you’d be forgiven for considering handicaps some way over the 20-point mark for the home team.

It’s tough to be a rugby fan in South Africa. Nobody can talk about quotas and an enforced racial basis for selection, which is precisely the reason everybody blames it for all the shortcomings. The best men for many a job at SARU are consistently passed over, while the exodus of players to pastures lucrative and foreign continues unabated at all levels. On the background of a depressed economy and unstinting political upheaval in the country, many South Africans have become used to seeing their beloved Springboks be the national body that brings good cheer to places where it is in short supply. They have so often embodied the laager spirit, a team able to fight its way out of tough spots, a team that survives and triumphs.

But it’s also tough to look at Saturday’s display and wonder where that ‘survive and conquer’ character has gone. With the notable exception of Faf de Klerk, the fight just didn’t seem to be there. Players looked uncertain of their roles. Discipline was lamentable. Willie le Roux is horrendously out of form and really should have been sent off for the act of someone who is so desperate to do something in the game he has given up on caring what that something is. But at least he was desperate to do something. Others just didn’t seem to want to, even more didn’t seem to know what they should be doing. Even the effervescent De Klerk shone only because he got away with a couple of things that no coach would genuinely instruct him to do just when Ireland were on the brink of nicking the series.

Allister Coetzee appears to have avoided the brutal criticism that generally rolls in tidal waves from South Africa’s press, but there’s already a sense he is living on the edge. There will only be so many Test match aftermaths where he can hold hands up and make the usual noises about needing work in areas; the Rugby Championship is around the corner and work needs to be finished by the start of that.

It’s instructive of just how close to the brink South Africa were that Monday’s Irish press was unanimous in its assertion that this was one that got away from the men in green (and Ireland did play exceptionally well), just as it is instructive of how indomitable Eddie Jones’ England have become that Australia’s press proclaimed itself the second continent to hate the English this weekend past.

Even that Irish press was prostrate in its admiration, asking the English to turn a blind eye before gushing forth with phrases such as: “…you showed grit and determination, cleverness too, and heart and soul in abundance. You did not doubt and you did not shrivel. You fell behind, you came back, and you kept coming back for more. It was a stirring performance, right from the depths of your being.”

Eddie Jones is nine from nine now in his new role. It’s impossible to escape the thought that were the World Cup to be played now, England might win at a canter. Question marks remain about the defence – you can’t expect to win things if you’re shipping 20 points on a regular basis, but then you should also take the heroic second Test effort into account if analysing the English defence.

The most obvious thing about this England team is its apparent discovered ability to adapt to a game at will, to make the correct decisions under the heaviest pressure, something that was an utter mystery in the previous era. Ben Youngs has rediscovered the form that made him England’s number nine in the first place – and I have never been shy of banging on about the importance of a fast-thinking, all-seeing scrum-half. James Haskell is finally living up to his own hype. The Ford-Farrell combo has become a stellar fly-half/second five-eighth fulcrum around which the centres and back three are finding freedom.

We should also not forget the later England game on Saturday, where the U20s hammered a fine Irish side in the World Championship final. England’s future is almost as bright as its present. Meanwhile the Baby Boks were losing to Argentina. It was the other way round a few years ago.

There is plenty of time and practice before November 12 and lots can happen. But that game will show just how far in contrasting directions these two countries have moved in the past six months.

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens