After watching Ireland make headlines for all the right reasons and Wales for all the wrong ones, it is finally time for the Northern hemisphere’s top-ranked side to get underway in this November series. Contrasting the two teams really highlights the difference that a year can make. 12 months ago, England had been dumped out of their home tournament and the Springboks came within 2 points of knocking out eventual champions New Zealand. Since then England have gone unbeaten, winning a grand slam in the Six Nations and winning all three tests against Australia on their summer tour. South Africa on the other hand, finished a disappointing third in the Rugby Championship, and suffered their first ever home loss to Ireland. They were lucky at the weekend to escape with a draw against the Barbarians and go into this game knowing that they really need to win in order to stop the rot that is seeping into South African rugby at an alarming rate. Luckily, they welcome back several players who were unavailable against the Barbarians such as wing Bryan Habana, captain Adriaan Strauss and Willie le Roux.
Having said that, England cannot afford to become complacent. They have developed a serious habit of losing to South Africa, a team they haven’t beaten since 2006, and have issues of their own. The injury list is alarmingly long, and contains several key players. Most notable among the absentees is lock Maro Itoje, along with fellow second-row George Kruis. James Haskell is also out. On the wing Nowell and Watson are both injured, and at centre Jonathan Joseph has been relegated to the bench. This presents opportunities for other players to really impress. Jonny May, returning from injury, will be keen to stake a claim to the wing position, as will Marland Yarde. The match will also be the debut for Wasps centre Elliot Daly, who replaces Joseph. What’s so impressive about the England set-up is the sheer strength in depth, and the astute tactical direction of the coaching staff. What’s even more impressive is head coach Eddie Jones’ tactical ability. Against Australia in the summer, England were able to adapt their game to suit the needs of the match. They defended well and counter-attacked in the second test, and in the third they were able to play a more expansive , fluid style to simply outscore the Australians (that match was a record breaker in terms of points scored). Jones will also be aware that he has players who can turn on the style in every position from prop to full-back. Combine this with the ball-distribution skills of George Ford at 10 and the pin-point accurate kicking of Owen Farrell at 12 and it is difficult to see where their weaknesses will be on Saturday.
For South Africa, they will need to focus on the set piece; something that actually went well for them against the Barbarians, scoring several tries from the line-out. The absence of Itoje means that England’s line-out will be more susceptible to errors, and South Africa will need to exploit that. They should also play to their strengths and make this a much more physical encounter based on power rather than an expansive running game. They were effective in their test series against Ireland when they were willing to go through players rather than around them and they can be effective doing the same thing against England this weekend. It would be fitting for the Springboks to salvage their team playing the rugby that they are most famous for. England, however have looked impressive this year, and the chance to go an entire year unbeaten combined with the opportunity to finally end their longest winless drought (they’ve beaten both Australia and New Zealand since they last won against South Africa) will provide ample motivation for what promises to be an exciting and intriguing match.
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