Springboks to put England revival to the test
Martin Johnson could not have been clearer.
Asked on Thursday to assess how far away his emerging England side are from reaching their full potential, with one eye on next year's World Cup, the beetle-browed one's response was emphatic: "In no way are we anywhere near the finished article."
It was a timely intervention, and appropriate given the rising tide of excitement around his red rose charges.
This Saturday's little set-to with the Springboks is "a big, big game" as Johnson admits. And despite his disdain for lines of enquiry aimed at quantifying dubious notions such as 'potential', after the events of the past few weeks the manager appears happy to embrace the heightened sense of expectation the 80,000-odd souls converging on Twickenham will feel for a fourth week in a row.
"Yes there is higher expectation on us, and good," he told BBC Sport earlier this week. "That means we have done OK in the last three weeks."
Better than OK, most would say, given the second-half hurry-up they gave the All Blacks, the spectacular nature of the win over the Wallabies, and the rather untidy but useful learning experience of the victory over Samoa.
Two wins - which new RFU chief executive John Steele deemed would be "reasonable" at the outset - are already in the bank. But for this autumn series to be elevated from merely reasonable to an unqualified success, a first win over South Africa for four years would seem essential.
But hang on a minute, those of you with slightly longer memories might cry.
England may have seen off South Africa with relative comfort in the first half of the last decade, but the Boks' 25-14 win in London in 2006 signalled not only the end of Andy Robinson's reign as coach, but a run of six consecutive victories - including two at the 2007 World Cup - over the English.
Simon Shaw and Nick Easter were part of an England side hammered 42-6 on the Springboks' last visit to Twickenham. Picture: Getty
Those half-dozen wins have been achieved by an average of 29 points, including a chastening 42-6 hammering - a record home defeat at Twickenham - two years ago in Johnson's second game in charge.
But England's current side, mercifully perhaps, bears little resemblance to the ragged bunch obliterated that day.
Of those involved this Saturday, only Tom Palmer, Nick Easter and Danny Care remain from the 2008 starting line-up, while Toby Flood, Dylan Hartley, Simon Shaw and Tom Croft shared the pain from the bench.
A measure of the progress of recent months - over a mere half-dozen Tests - is that the team announced on Thursday was entirely predictable, and much better for it.
Two years into his reign, Johnson's England side belatedly has a settled look, and he is picking from a position of relative strength, even if the depth in certain areas is not as strong as he might like.
Riki Flutey's return to fitness may present a selection dilemma at centre, and you could argue over some of the bench options - Matt Banahan or Delon Armitage? Hendre Fourie or James Haskell? Charlie Hodgson or Jonny Wilkinson, when the latter is fit again?
But allowing for injuries and the odd tweak here and there, this group - Johnson will have used only 25 players in these four Tests - appears to be the one on which England's 2011 World Cup hopes will rest.
More immediately, six players - the five who only started a Test at Twickenham for the first time three weeks ago (Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Shontayne Hape, Ben Youngs and Courtney Lawes) plus Dan Cole - have never faced the Springboks before, so carry no baggage from recent history.
Then again, fresh-faced young thrusters do not always thrive against the Springboks, even those with plenty of miles on the clock and contemplating their last Test of another long and demanding season.
This touring squad may be deprived of a long list of luminaries - Fourie Du Preez, Jaque Fourie, Bryan Habana, John Smit, Schalk Burger and Heinrich Brussouw among them - and lost two more players to a recent drug scandal, but they retain a hard-boiled core of World Cup winners.
England's line-out will face a severe examination from the forensic Victor Matfield, whose combination with the enforcer Bakkies Botha and the unsung flanker Juan Smith is recognised - by Johnson - as "probably the premier group that has been around for a good few years".
Bakkies Botha (left) and Victor Matfield - back in London this week - remain one of the most potent second-row pairings in world rugby. Picture: Getty
Stung by last week's surprise defeat by Scotland, the likes of Botha will not be holding back, as ever. "It is always a physical game at Twickenham, but physicality brings me out in goose bumps," Botha said this week in anticipation.
The front row remains a force, giant number eight Pierre Spies is no slouch, the Steyns - Morne and Francois - can kick goals from anywhere and despite an inexperienced back three, there is more class behind the scrum with Jean de Villiers and Ruan Pienaar.
Nevertheless, this is an opportunity for England, against opponents currently ranked a place higher (third) than themselves in the world order. Victory for the hosts would see those positions reversed, breaking the southern hemisphere's recent stranglehold on the top three spots.
While Johnson dismisses the notion his side are hot favourites as "ridiculous", he does not hide his enthusiasm for the challenge awaiting his troops.
"It is a cracking game to be involved with," he said. "Anytime you play South Africa, you know what you are going to get. It is going to be very intense physically. I think everyone is looking forward to a full-blooded Test match."
Full-blooded, full-on, full metal jacket required. Johnson played 11 Tests against the Springboks [eight for England, three for the Lions, emerging with a 7-4 win/loss record] and remembers every one. "Win or lose, they were all very, very tough."
They may not possess the ruthless attacking efficiency of the All Blacks or the razzle-dazzle of the Wallabies, but in their ferocious commitment and combative nature, the Springboks remain "just as big a challenge as New Zealand and Australia" for Johnson.
England have shown themselves capable of living with the world's best this autumn, and their manager is quietly confident in what they can produce again on Saturday. But he is mindful of how quickly perceptions can change.
"The world is so volatile these days. You can go from brilliant to terrible in a matter of hours now," he observed. "We have to deal with that as a team, but I think we are in a good place."
How good, and how far along the road to that elusive 'finished article' - "you are never the finished article" in Johnson's eyes - we may discover on Saturday.