Expert Witness: Nick Easter expects England to ‘finally step up’ against depleted Springboks

James While
Expert Witness England v Springboks

In their Autumn Nations Series finale, England face their arch-enemies South Africa at Twickenham on Saturday in what promises to be an enthralling game.

Forwards coach and former England number eight Nick Easter joins James While to preview the game as the Red Rose and Springboks look to end the year on a high.

Outside the window

“One of the biggest issues facing South Africa is that this game falls out of the club agreement window and as such, Top 14 and Premiership players are not available for the South Africans. That means that several high quality players are missing, combined with quite a long injury list that includes the likes of Lood de Jager and Lukhanyo Am,” Easter said.

“Six world class players – Vincent Koch, Trevor Nyakane, Cobus Reinach, Jasper Wiese, Cheslin Kolbe and Andre Esterhuizen – are all missing as a result of this Test being played outside of the Test window and away from that club agreement. Factor in too that Pieter-Steph du Toit is suspended and that will have a big impact on the South African continuity – but I believe that the team management will embrace this as an opportunity for others to stake a claim and, on that level, the lads playing will have one hell of a motivation both to perform and win, and that’s kind of an unknown factor that evens up the selection issues.

“Players like Thomas du Toit and Evan Roos are very capable replacements for the players missing and have been putting their hand up for selection for some time – but in saying that, the Boks tend to rely greatly on scoreboard ownership and given that Cheslin Kolbe, who has been very successful as a primary goal-kicker on this tour, is out, their lack of a back-up with Marnie Libbok on the bench is a problem. Expect to see Faf de Klerk take on the tee duties over and above Damian Willemse – he’s untested at this level but obviously has a great temperament and his success will be vital for the Boks.

“All in all, on paper South Africa are weaker than perhaps they’d like – but there’s part of me that thinks that given the competition within their squad, the challenge for places might just see some of the newbies step up to the plate and that could offset their unavailability problems,” suggested Easter.

England changes

“Looking at England’s team announcement, there’s a few surprises as always with Eddie!

“I’m actually quite glad that Jack van Poortvliet has been retained as a starter; he is clearly of Test match quality and, given he’s headed to the World Cup in 10 months, he really needs to gain all the experience he can get against the very best as he masters his craft and that means more Test match game time. He was perhaps schooled a little bit by the great Aaron Smith last week and seven days later he faces another world class exponent in Faf. It’ll be another suffocating day for him but Jones needs to invest in his talent now if he’s going to get a return next year.

“I have no doubt about his abilities – and in many respects starting will allow him to learn more about framing a game strategy than coming on off the bench. It’ll be an invaluable lesson and I am certain he’ll respond positively. The upside of course is that you’ve 120 odd caps as a safety net off the bench in Ben Youngs and it’ll be interesting to see how Jack goes – and how England react in terms of replacement timing.

“I’m still a little bit concerned as to how Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell will combine. Smith is very much the first receiver at the moment, which means that with Owen at 12 he lacks the power go-forward he has at Quins as I alluded to in this column before the Japan game. Conversely, Owen wants a playmaker 12 outside him and it would make a little bit more sense to me to have these two changing up a lot more – Farrell taking the first pass and using Smith as the looping second receiver. I suspect we might see a few change ups in the backline – Manu Tuilagi switching between 12 and 13, with Freddie Steward taking a line into the 13 channel. Tommy Freeman is also quite exceptional in this regard – he’s potentially the right shape and skill set to play in the centres given exposure there and I wouldn’t be surprised to see quite a lot of positional fluidity off first phase and second phase ball.

“The Alex Coles situation with him coming into the side at blindside flank is perplexing! Why is Maro Itoje in at lock and Coles at six when they started the other way around versus Argentina? What has changed? I can only conclude that Jones has decided that either Maro isn’t a Test flanker or Coles isn’t a Test lock! There’s no other explanation for this move – although it might just be that Jones wants some scrummage grunt from the sides as well as the extra lineout forward versus Franco Mostert at the back. For me, I get that you might want the additional jumper versus the Boks, but I’d still rather see us backing our ability on the ground and over the ball.

“Lastly, at prop, I understand the change seeing Mako Vunipola start, and with him, for club relationship purposes, Jamie George. This is a case of using the bench in a plan to diffuse the bomb squad as South Africa unload their bench with some world class performers. With Ellis Genge, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Will Stuart to trot on, England have their best three scrummagers as finishers and I can actually see a lot of pace and power coming on. Jones has rolled the dice and the quality of player he’s got from 16-23 really impresses me,” argued Easter.

The bottom line

“This is the last Test in a wearying year for the Boks – and one perhaps that they’d have preferred not to have played – but given it’s England, they’ll be well up for the match and as I mentioned, with some fringe players anxious to impress.

“Eddie Jones’ 2022 has been a poor year by England standards – a desperately bad Six Nations where we lost games we should always be winning against Scotland away Ireland at home, followed by his first loss to Australia in his tenure and then capped off by the defeat against an excellent Los Pumas side earlier this month. This is a must-win for him in terms of both personal credibility and team confidence. He’s lost the big ones against the Boks but both in 2018 and last year, despite being beaten up a bit up front, his men found a way and that is key again on Saturday.

“All the usual cliches apply – start hot, win collisions, solid set-piece and all of that, but England probably need also to warm their supporters with a performance that backs up Eddie’s claims. The one thing that might work in their favour is the sheer experience of the All Blacks last weekend, who have probably edged ahead of South Africa in terms of both set-piece and sheer brutality at the breakdown. It means England will go in sharp on Saturday and also with some of the emotional momentum of last week still behind them.

“It’ll be as close as ever when these two sides meet at Twickenham – the last two encounters has seen a point or two only separate them – but given how much is at stake, I do expect England to finally step up and see them winning by a single digit margin,” he concluded.

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