In the third installment of a series of exclusive columns for Planet Rugby, former England prop Phil Vickery examines England's chances in PE.
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Reflecting on the Second Test at the towering Ellis Park, I have to admit the opening 20 minutes went something like I feared it might. Unless you've personally experienced wave upon wave of strapping Springboks running around the corner towards you at pace, you have no idea just how big a physical challenge this is. Yes, you could claim that South Africa's first try was a nonsense, but in honesty, could you deny that they had earned the points from the manner they played?
However, England rallied well, and were in touching distance at the end, and even 'won' the second half by a narrow margin, but that rally was achieved through grim determination and absolute heart rather than anything more tactical or technical.
South Africa don't enjoy the contact game, they absolutely relish it! Even their backs want to bully their opposite number; they want to hit and they want to hurt. Everything about the Springbok game is BIG- from kicks, to tackles to carries and everything in-between, and it was here the game was won and lost.
Willem Alberts has been a massive thorn in England's side this series, and his direct, no-nonsense approach is something England can learn from. Bismarck du Plessis too, made a lethal impact on the game, and I am sure that all who played in RWC 2011 were delighted this mobile behemoth of a hooker was inexplicably confined to reserve duties during the competition. England's forwards could take a lot from emulating how these guys hit the line and the pass from deep and at pace. When 18 stones (or 120kgs) is moving at you that quickly, it's hard to stop them dead on the gainline.
But there were some very pleasing moments and performances by the men in white too. Dan Cole continues to catch my eye and he's made a big impression on this series, holding up the huge Bok pack early on and then increasing his stranglehold on both the game and his opposite number as the match progressed. His work and work-rate in the ruck is also outstanding, and there are few better props in the world right now. Alex Corbisiero made a strong showing after replacing the mobile Marler; he and Cole work well together in 'pinching' the opposition front row- both England props pointing inwards like an arrow head onto the hooker and trying to disconnect the SA loosehead, so effectively England are scrummaging 3 v 2 in the front row, something they achieved three or four times in the second half. Thomas Waldrom, an unlikely shape for an 8, is a real footballer and added much needed impact. Gritty and intelligent, he understands southern hemisphere rugby and his introduction made a noticeable difference, save for his awful dropped catch.
However, there were some serious concerns in terms of structure and defence, compounded by playing an inexperienced centre partnership with two outside centres. It resulted in a palpable lack of shape in both attack and defence, with England playing a very 'de-constructed' game, something they're not used to and is not really the 'English way'. As an example of this, the last Bok try featured a run from the outstanding JP Pietersen where he waltzed through 7 (yes 7!) would be tacklers. Worrying too, there was a lack of shape and chase to defend the initial kick from Jonathan Joseph that JPP returned. I know Stuart Lancaster will be appalled at this one moment in the game, despite JP Pietersen's outstanding display. There is an old adage in rugby- a kick is made a good kick by a good chase. In this respect, SA are a long way ahead of England right now and they really apply pressure through the chase once they've kicked.
It also concerned me to see the poor execution of pressure relieving tactics. We continually put ourselves in areas of the field where we simply did not want to be; Chris Ashton's inexcusable penalty directly after the first try is a great example of this; just when England needed to play territory, we found ourselves back defending our own red zone. That was a naïve piece of rugby in extremis from the Saints wing.
So onto the 'Windy City', the wonderful Port Elizabeth, with its long beaches and calm demeanour. A visit to Jeffery's Bay is always a highlight for the tourists, where the huge, rolling 'tube' breakers are legendary with surfers around the world. It's often overlooked by visitors for the attractions of Durban and Cape Town, but it's truly a lovely city, with tremendously friendly people who 'braaii' until the early hours on the west end of the beach, and I've enjoyed both playing and socialising there a number of times. Nearby Cape St Francis is also a beautiful place well worth a trip; a holiday village for the rich and trendy, with canals, lagoons and the Indian Ocean all at hand- utterly stunning.
Although England have lost both tests narrowly, I believe Lancaster will make a number of changes for the last test. In the backline, expect a recall for either Barritt or Farrell to captain the defence at 12, with Tuilagi given a roaming role on the wing, where he's played a lot of club rugby, and will look to match the physicality of JPP and Habana. In the pack, Tom Palmer's bulk is sorely needed in the second-row, and in the loose forwards, we will see a re-shuffle, with the probable line up (through injury and change) of Johnson (or Dowson), Haskell and Waldrom. I also expect the looseheads to swap, with Corbisiero starting. I understand the outstanding Ben Youngs is struggling, and therefore Danny Care's welcome return to form will earn him a test start.
It'll be a tough ask for England, but, with the Boks also missing key players through injury, I actually fancy them to sneak this one by a score.
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