For both combatants at Twickenham, the success or failure of their November campaigns now hinges on Saturday’s result.
For both combatants at Twickenham the success or failure of their respective November campaigns now hinges entirely on Saturday’s result.
I’m not the only one growing a little tired of the constant talk about the World Cup. Since when did Test matches a year before the global event become pseudo warm-up games?
A lot of people are drawing a lot of conclusions about the future when they would be better off focusing on the here and now. I fully agree with All Blacks coach Steve Hansen that it’s “baloney” to say New Zealand have gained a psychological advantage over England ahead of the next year’s final. As Hansen so correctly points out, it’s a fixture that might very well not even happen.
But I do agree that another loss on home soil will most definitely be a massive blow to the English psyche, both on the field and in the stands.
Stuart Lancaster’s squad has been steadily gaining momentum and this month was supposed to be the time for them to make a statement, for it all to come together, for Chris Robshaw and co. to use home field advantage to reverse the narrow losses on Kiwi soil in June and thus head into the their home World Cup with the confidence required to go the way. Last week, however, it went horribly pear-shaped at a Twickers. Now, their credibility as World Cup contenders is on the line.
Similarly, last week’s loss to Ireland was not part of the script – or sports betting predictions – for Heyneke Meyer, who has spoken more about the World Cup than any other international coach over the past three years. The long-term goal of becoming world champions for the third time has become an obsession that overrides everything else in the Bok camp.
The Springboks’ performance in Dublin – including the crazy calls to turn down points – were symptomatic of a team that was expecting to go through the motions before claiming an inevitable win that was part of the grand plan for global domination. When things didn’t go to plan, they were short on ideas on how to rectify the situation.
“Losing last week was a big wake-up call,” said Meyer midweek.
“But perhaps that’s what we needed. We had set ourselves the goal of winning all four Tests on this tour and ultimately going to the 2015 World Cup with a 100 percent record in the northern hemisphere. Obviously that is now off the table.
“But often results before the World Cup mean little in the context of a World Cup. A lot can change. In 2006, the Boks lost two out of three on the end-of-year tour, but won the World Cup in 2007. It’s about learning lessons before that tournament, and we certainly learned one in Dublin.”
Perhaps the lesson learnt – for both sides and their respective press corps – should be that to win on any given Saturday, your mind needs to be focused totally on the job at hand, not on a tournament that is almost a year away.
A wake up call Dublin certainly was, but I don’t think the Boks played quite as badly as some have suggested – at least in terms of what they had set out to do. They dominated the possession, territory and set-piece stats and defended effectively (Ireland only made one line break). Combined, those factors usually translate into the kind of pressure which yields points – assuming you take those points and/or don’t drop the ball 5 metres short of the line.
While many have suggested the Boks lacked intensity, I would argue that it wasn’t their famous physicality that was lacking. The problem – beyond the multiple handling errors – was rather the predictability of their attack. And this isn’t a new problem. When it isn’t difficult to predict where the ball is going, and where the carrier will seek contact, then it’s so much easier for a defensive to get bodies to the breakdown quickly.
Despite South Africa’s increased desire to play with ball in hand, England will also have taken note of the Bok midfield’s inability to distribute the ball and how well Ireland were able to choke the rhythm of their attack with their rush defence on the first and second receivers.
It may not take a crystal ball to predict what South Africa will offer, but history nevertheless suggests that the challenge is a massive one for England, who have not gotten the better the Springboks in 11 matches stretching back to 2006. Indeed, not a single member of the current squad has ever tasted victory against the men in green and gold.
Lancaster and Robshaw have both spoken of the determination and diligence that has characterised this week’s preparations and how that record is a motivating factor. But one must start to wonder if, like Wales, England lack the mental fortitude, maturity and confidence to topple the big three.
Last week’s second-half performance, when England were unable to react to the All Blacks’ change in pattern, would lend weight to that argument. Now they must prove the critics wrong.
Owen Farrell must deliver a convincing tactical performance, take control of the game and, most importantly, show he can take the pressure off his team in crucial moments. Ditto for Danny Care, who must show an accurate kicking game to go with his natural attacking flair.
Question marks continue to hang over the 12 jersey – Kyle Eastmond must put his hand up. After a less-than-inspired performance last week, Mike Brown must regain confidence lost. Billy Vunipola must fire on all cylinders, all the time, not only in bursts.
The line-out was good last week, it must now challenge the best in the business. On top of it all, Robshaw’s leadership needs to take on a harder edge.
This will be Test in every sense of the word. For both sides, failure could have far-reaching consequences.
Players to watch:
For England : 20-year-old Bath winger Anthony Watson will make his first start for England hoping to build on his cameo appearance off the bench last weekend. He couldn’t ask for tougher opposition as he faces the most experienced wing in world rugby, 2007 IRB Player of the Year Bryan Habana. Blessed with sheer pace and that rare attacking instinct that simply cannot be coached, Watson is a potential super star of the future. But at this level, wings need to be much more than fast and daring. They must be calm, calculating, decisive and unwavering on defence and under pressure. We’ll find out soon enough if he has the nerves for the big time.
For South Africa: Meyer claims that this five changes were predetermined but it’s hard to believe he planned to throw Cobus Reinach into the deep end in front on 80,000 people. But Francois Hougaard had to be dropped. Alongside Sharks team-mate Pat Lambie, who finally gets a chance to start after a few match-changing displays off the bench, Reinach has a chance to take a giant leap forward in the Bok scrum-half hierarchy. The speed of his delivery is a big plus but he, like Lambie, must