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Preview: South Africa v England

07th June 2012 14:40

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Ben Young going shark diving

Into the Shark Tank: England

The wait is finally over. Durban will be the setting for the first of three Tests between South Africa and England in a June series that promises so much.

It has been a long time since the English arrived in the Republic this confident, as they look to banish what happened in June 2007. Those two internationals - in Bloemfontein and Pretoria - saw the Springboks put a combined 113 points on their visitors. Few expect something similar.

Why? Well for once it is not the English being branded with the "team in transition" label as South Africa are the ones in flux. They are without the retired Victor Matfield and injured duo Schalk Burger and Juan Smith. They are also minus overseas-based players Jaque Fourie, Fourie du Preez and Bakkies Botha currently, with the prospect of the latter joining the squad following his Top 14 exploits not being ruled out by both head coach Heyneke Meyer and Botha himself.

That leads me on to the differing levels of readiness for this series opener at Kings Park and yet another reason why the recently extended Super Rugby term has become more trouble than it's worth. Not only has the quality of games dipped due to tired bodies but now it impacts on the June Tests.

Let me paint more of a picture of how the Springboks are coming into this international. Last weekend the Bulls faced the Stormers in a bruising derby fixture while the Lions hosted the Sharks in another draining encounter. Meanwhile, England were on a game reserve.

While there is a similar story in the north going into November, we've yet to see a series impacted such as this even before a ball has been kicked. Once respective Tests are completed, the south returns to Super Rugby before the Rugby Championship starts.

Consequently the notion that this first Test is where England have their best opportunity of claiming victory holds more weight, particularly as they tackle the Springboks at sea level instead of altitude. That is something that has caused personal angst to former skipper John Smit, who would have liked to see his former colleagues holding any advantage they could in the big opener. "Sadly they're taking England to Durban first, which will be the most comfortable venue of the series. I would have liked them to be taken to the dark corners of South Africa for the first week or two. Durban is sea level so the England players won't feel the burn in the back of the throats and the taste of blood after 20 minutes," he told the BBC.

Such passionate words offer those who are unfamiliar with what a series in South Africa holds an idea of what to expect. The intensity of games will be fierce while supporters will be equally hungry to follow up the 2009 British & Irish Lions with an English scalp.

That epic series three years ago was at the top end of what many of the Lions squad and coaches had faced in their careers, and there is undoubtedly going to be unfinished business in the back of people like Graham Rowntree, Ugo Monye and Lee Mears' minds, even if they refuse to admit it. Throw in a subplot of Brad Barritt and Mouritz Botha being South African born and we have many ingredients that I assure you will not spoil the broth.

Meyer's first squad announcement was met with a feeling of inevitability in many corners of South Africa, not least Cape Town where they feel the Bull heavy selection in the 32 will lead to more of a kick-and-chase style. Hence England coach Stuart Lancaster going for two full-backs in his XV as Mike Brown gets the nod alongside wings Ben Foden and Chris Ashton. Expect lots of airtime in Durban as we know what's coming...now, can England counter it?

Ones to watch:

For South Africa: The arrival of Eben Etzebeth and Marcell Coetzee has been greeted with applause by the vast majority as the duo have been in excellent form for the Stormers and Sharks respectively. Etzebeth is being touted as the new enforcer of South African rugby while Coetzee has been at the top end of the tackle and carry statistics in Super Rugby. Both are quality prospects in the green and gold and are by no means a step down from their predecessors. Watch Coetzee get through a great deal of work on the openside flank.

For England: Exeter Chiefs flanker Tom Johnson and Harlequins loosehead prop Joe Marler will win their first caps for England in the Shark Tank, with both impressing for their clubs this season. Johnson was strong against the Barbarians while Marler has been good for the Aviva Premiership champions. But we have not gone for the forward duo this week as there is one positional switch that caught the eye. Ben Foden being shifted from full-back to wing to accommodate Mike Brown has been long overdue. Brown deserves his shot while it will help the visitors that they have two 15s to help combat the aerial bombardment they are set to receive from the likes of Zane Kirchner and Morné and Frans Steyn. A right call.

Head-to-head: Get a pen ready as there are match-ups all over the field that are set to bring sparks. Starting up front, the Beast against Dan Cole should be good while Bismarck du Plessis and Dylan Hartley is sure to flare up at some point, with Doctor Du Plessis set to step in from tighthead prop should anything kick off. Geoff Parling's line-out battle with Juandré Kruger will be key but we opt for former Sharks centre Brad Barritt going toe-to-toe with his old team-mate Frans Steyn in the midfield. The term "unstoppable force meets immovable object" comes to mind. This should be a good battle with a lots of the physical.

Recent results:

2010: South Africa won 21-11 in London
2008: South Africa won 42-6 in London
2007: South Africa won 15-6 in Paris
2007: South Africa won 36-0 in Paris
2007: South Africa won 55-22 in Pretoria
2007: South Africa won 58-10 in Bloemfontein
2006: South Africa won 25-14 in London
2006: England won 23-21 in London
2004: England won 32-16 in London
2003: England won 25-6 in Perth
2002: England won 53-3 in London

Prediction: Not playing at altitude will offer England a level playing field this week. But it won't be enough for Lancaster's men as I see the Springboks squeezing home by 4!

The teams:

South Africa: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jean de Villiers, 12 Frans Steyn, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 François Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Juandré Kruger, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Coenie Oosthuizen, 18 Flip van der Merwe, 19 Keegan Daniel, 20 Ruan Pienaar, 21 Patrick Lambie, 22 Wynand Olivier.

England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Manusamoa Tuilagi, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Ben Foden, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Chris Robshaw (capt), 6 Tom Johnson, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Mouritz Botha, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Lee Mears, 17 Paul Doran-Jones, 18 Tom Palmer, 19 Phil Dowson, 20 Lee Dickson, 21 Toby Flood, 22 Jonathan Joseph.

Date: Saturday, June 9
Kick-off: 17:00 (16:00 BST, 15:00 GMT)
Venue: Kings Park, Durban
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant refeerees: Alain Rolland (Ireland), Simon McDowell (Scotland)
Television match official: Iain Ramage (Scotland)

By Adam Kyriacou
Twitter: @PlanetRugbyAK

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