England and South Africa bring to a close the Autumn Nations Series in a game both will be desperate to win following frustrating campaigns.
The last few weeks have effectively mirrored the rest of the year for these two teams as they have yet to truly catch up with the best in the world, France and Ireland, despite moments of promise.
For the Red Rose, they endured a torrid Six Nations before following that up with a much-needed series victory in Australia, even if it was far from perfect.
It has put their head coach, Eddie Jones, under significant duress, pressure which increased when they succumbed to Argentina at the start of November.
They easily, and unsurprisingly, dispatched Japan before playing a pretty tortuous 70 minutes against New Zealand. Although England came back to draw that match in a remarkable ending to the game, it should not paper over some pretty significant cracks.
The Springboks have fared slightly better but they will also be disappointed with their year so far. Jacques Nienaber’s men were pretty mediocre against Wales in the mid-year internationals, scraping a 2-1 triumph, but they went into the Rugby Championship as favourites.
They initially justified that tag by dominating New Zealand in the first match, but the Boks went on to lose their next two and that ultimately cost them the title.
There was more irritation when South Africa went down to Ireland and France over successive weekends, but the team took that out on Italy by putting over 60 points on an improved Azzurri outfit.
Especially during the latter stages of the campaign, there has been an improvement in their attacking game. However, that will mean nothing if they don’t walk away from Twickenham with a victory.
A lot rides on this match for both the Red Rose and the Springboks, with the winning side heading into a massive 2023 with momentum.
Where the game will be won
When England edged past the Springboks last year at Twickenham – coincidently the teams’ final match in 2021 – it was the hosts’ creativity versus the away side’s physicality. The Red Rose had very little ball but they were very effective when in possession, scoring some superb tries during the encounter. South Africa, meanwhile, endured a slow start but gradually grew into the game and utterly dominated the set-piece, sending the home side into reverse at both maul and scrum.
The Boks’ attack was poor, however, and they ended up losing a game they ultimately should have won. Both squads of players therefore know where they need to improve in the repeat fixture this weekend. For England it is about getting the fundamentals of the game right and to withstand the inevitable pressure the visitors will attempt to put on them. If they don’t then we can’t see Nienaber’s men being quite as profligate this time around. The attack has been much sharper on this tour and they surely won’t pass up those opportunities on Saturday if their pack lays the same platform.
Last time they met
What they said
England lock Maro Itoje is expecting another huge physical challenge when they face the Springboks.
“Playing South Africa at Twickenham – I’m really looking forward to it. I only wish the game is a little bit sooner because we left a lot out there against New Zealand,” he said.
“You never want to be too happy with a draw, but it’s better than losing. Hopefully it will put us in better stead for South Africa, who will be a great challenge.
“South Africa haven’t changed the way they play since their first game in international rugby! Strong set-piece, strong kicking game, strong defence.”
South Africa head coach Nienaber does not believe that their attacking game is being given enough respect.
“We can’t control the narrative that gets put out there that we are boring and we don’t attack that we just kick and tackle,” he said.
“All the energy you put in, you are not going to change that narrative, that is the narrative people want to drive.
“If we will get respect ever, I don’t know, but as long as we are comfortable with what we are putting out here and are trying to achieve, and we are open and honest with each other as a group.”
Players to watch
England head coach Jones has reverted back to the hybrid forward as Alex Coles gets another shot in Test rugby. We wondered whether Coles was too lightweight to be dominant at the highest level, but the signs against Argentina were promising. In an otherwise abysmal team performance, Coles played well and fronted up against an uncompromising Los Pumas pack. This is obviously another step up, but if he does his job in the lineout and maul, which is primarily why he has been selected, and also holds his own physically, the Northampton Saints man would have done a good job.
Another player that needs a big game is Mako Vunipola, who comes in after an impressive cameo against New Zealand. This is a surprise selection, however, considering that scrummaging has never been Vunipola’s strength and he is up against the best set-piece exponent in the game in Frans Malherbe. The experienced loosehead has to be solid otherwise it will be a long day for England.
If the pack fails to fire then it will be a tough evening for Jack van Poortvliet; the young scrum-half given another shot after being targeted by the All Blacks in their third match of the Autumn Nations Series. Van Poortvliet had a torrid game last weekend but he is a massive talent and his box-kicking will be vital on Saturday. At just 21, he has pinpoint accuracy from the base and with Jonny May, Freddie Steward and newcomer to the XV this week Tommy Freeman all good aerially, they have an avenue to put the visitors under pressure.
With England’s kicking game a potential strength, South Africa will want big performances from all their back three but especially Willie le Roux. The full-back will need to be solid under the high ball and negate that threat but, equally, he needs to be their spark in attack. Whenever Le Roux plays, the Boks look so much more threatening and his influence has only increased over the past month.
The 33-year-old is their primary decision-maker in the backline, especially with Damian Willemse still learning his trade at the highest level. The fly-half retains his place in the team, despite pressure from the in-form Manie Libbok, but he will need to be much better on Saturday. Willemse can’t quite control the game well enough at Test level at the moment and it is a concern heading into this contest.
He will want as much help from his pack as possible, who will no doubt bring plenty of physicality, athleticism and endeavour. Talented Stormers number eight Evan Roos is one player that provides all three of those things having enjoyed a stunning couple of years with the Cape Town outfit. Roos will look to lay down a marker with the Rugby World Cup looming and he will certainly test the England defence if he can get his hands on the ball enough.
It isn’t an England v South Africa clash if you don’t talk about the contest between Maro Itoje and Eben Etzebeth, two world-class locks who always produce a fascinating duel. Etzebeth has had the edge in their individual battles over the past few meetings, but it has been very tight and Itoje will no doubt want to get one over on his adversary this weekend. The only issue is that the Saracens man has not been in great form during the end-of-year Tests and struggled against New Zealand last weekend.
Switching between back-row and second-row has certainly not helped, but hopefully this past month has shown the head coach that Itoje is very much not a blindside flanker. With him playing his second successive match at lock, the 28-year-old should be a bit more adjusted for this contest, even if Saturday’s opponent presents one of the sternest challenges in the game. The Springboks’ best forward this season, Etzebeth has been simply outstanding in 2022 and will certainly put himself about throughout the 80 minutes.
Whisper it quietly but we think that the Springboks are very much on the right track looking ahead to the 2023 World Cup. The fundamentals have always been strong but there are signs that the attack is starting to fire too. They should therefore be too strong for England, who still have a number of issues that have yet to be addressed. South Africa by 10.
2021: England beat South Africa 27-26 in London
2019: South Africa beat England 32-12 in Yokohama
2018: England beat South Africa 12-11 in London
2018: England beat South Africa 25-10 in Cape Town
2018: South Africa beat England 23-12 in Bloemfontein
2018: South Africa beat England 42-39 in Johannesburg
2016: England beat South Africa 37-21 in London
2014: South Africa beat England 31-28 in London
2012: South Africa beat England 16-15 in London
England: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Tommy Freeman, 13 Manu Tuilagi, 12 Owen Farrell (c), 11 Jonny May, 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Jack van Poortvliet, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Tom Curry, 6 Alex Coles, 5 Jonny Hill, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Will Stuart, 19 David Ribbans, 20 Sam Simmonds, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Henry Slade, 23 Jack Nowell
South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Evan Roos, 7 Franco Mostert, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Ox Nche
Replacements: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Thomas du Toit, 19 Marco van Staden, 20 Kwagga Smith, 21 Jaden Hendrikse, 22 Manie Libbok, 23 Canan Moodie
Date: Saturday, November 26
Venue: Twickenham, London
Kick-off: 17:30 GMT
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Andrew Brace (Ireland), Pierre Brousset (France)
TMO: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)