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Springboks to put England revival to the test

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Bryn Palmer | 19:29 UK time, Thursday, 25 November 2010

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 (left) and Nick Easter look disconsolate as they reflect on the 42-6 hammering by South Africa two years ago

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 train with the Springboks in London before Saturday's meeting with England at Twickenham

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.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I pick England to win 25-8 with a big of argy-bargy along the way Botha v Lawes should be tasty

  • Comment number 2.

    I regret selling my tickets now. :(

  • Comment number 3.

    #2 Illumi-llama

    LMAO. When did you sell them?

  • Comment number 4.

    The second row battle is going to be immense. If Palmer and Lawes stay injury free, we will be talking about them as a pairing in similar terms to Botha and Matfield.

    THe old guard vs the precocious pups, gonna be great viewing!

  • Comment number 5.

    I can see this being tight with SA scoring in 3's and England in 7's & 5's. Shocking me a little to be saying that!
    England have to be favourite whatever johnno says. A loss would make a huge difference to how the autmn feels and would put the Aussie performance in context, a win and we all start to dream...

  • Comment number 6.

    Full metal jacket refers to the bullet casing, not the protection (as in a bullet proof vest).

    So either, you are implying that England need full metal jacket bullets to stop the South Africans or have mistakenly assumed that 'jacket' actually means bullet proof vest... which England will need.

    Either way, England to come off worst.

  • Comment number 7.

    If us scots can beat them with the worst backs in world rugby then you boys should hammer them! Anything other than a win for england will be a shocker. Reckon you will hammer them.

    Your press will get as excited as a jack russel with two bones.

  • Comment number 8.

    #4 JH - I'd love it if we could talk about Palmer and Lawes in the same way as Matfield and Botha, but Palmer's 31 and Lawes 21. The likes of Attwood, who benched against Samoa, will need to be brought through either in the 6N or after the world cup to partner Lawes in the longer term.

    England to win a close game by 2 points, outscoring the Boks three tries to two.

  • Comment number 9.

    "unqualified success"

    You what?

    4/4 wins would be an unqualified success.

    3/4 is "just" very good. Still, a "very good" I'd be happy with, but fundamentally, you could argue that NZ took their foot off the gass which allowed England back into the game.

    The only stunning moment has been the win over Australia. Samoa, was in my opinion, less than convincing - but a win is a win, so can't begrudge the team on that one.

    I'm hoping for a good clean win for England, with daylight between the teams, and most importantly England not conceding any tries in the last 20 minutes due to relaxing.

  • Comment number 10.

    Norfolk enchants - what on earth are you banging on about??? Was that the most interesting you coudl comment in the article?

    This is a massive test for Lawes in p[articular. I can't wait to see how he gets on against, albeit, an ageing Botha and Matfield. I'm massively excited for him - and hope he smashes them off the park.

    Let’s not forget that while SA have had a poor recent run of results, it wasn’t so long ago they were World Cup winners, Lions test series winners and Tri-Nations winners and with plenty of players who were involved in Super 14's wins. This is not a bad group of players.

    Having said that are back three are electrifying at the moment and we are so much more solid up front we can actually provide a platform. I think it’s going to be an extremely hard physical test upfront, (what are the odds on Hartley getting binned I wonder?), as everyone else recognises - but i think we'll come out on top and our backs will finish the job. They have too much power and speed for an inexperienced SA ¾ line.

  • Comment number 11.

    Bryn and everyone else for that matter - does anyone think that Lawes could make a switch to 8 after next years WC?

    By that point Easter will be entering the twilight of his career and with the carrying ability, hands, fitness and physicality Lawes has demonstrated I think he could become a massive force from 8????

    Thoughts??

  • Comment number 12.

    South Africa always dominate England! i predict a 38-12 win for the Bokks!

  • Comment number 13.

    Discipline has got to be better than against Samoa - we gave away about 5 penalties in the first 20 minutes last week that Morne Steyn would slot in his sleep. If we give the Saffas a 15 point head start we won't have a chance.

  • Comment number 14.

    This will be fascinating. Villiers is definitely the flakiest among the top ten international coaches, but they will be hurting after Scotland. I think that game was a one off - England know only too well how to lose in the rain and mud at Murrayfield.
    One question I have is which Tindall will turn up - the powerhouse who blew the Australian midfield away or the stranded whale who played against New Zealand. The second row battle will be pretty crucial, too - England's lineout is very inconsistent.
    If their discipline improves from the last game, England will win.

  • Comment number 15.

    Pianoshifter - harsh on Tindall's defence against New Zeland.
    I thought that as well watching the game but the analysis on the Rugby Club showed that Tindall was let down by team mates inside him who kept stepping out of the line to make big hits but missing their tackles, leaving massive holes which Tinds couldn't cover on his own.
    The team defence was a lot better organised against Australia so Tindall wasn't left so isolated.

  • Comment number 16.

    We (South Africa) are going to get a pasting by you England boys.
    Still, it may be a good thing and see the worst coach in our history finally having to pack his bags.
    Really like the look of Australia and England for next year's World Cup. Both teams are bubbling up at just the right time.
    The All Blacks, as usual, have peaked a year too soon. Doh!
    :)

  • Comment number 17.

    to all the english supporters

    I hope for your sake you win tomorrow because if you dont you never will!!!!!
    I will say this though if the Bokke go ahead by a few early out you wont win.....but only to see MJ hitting the table again - you guys gave 13 penalties away last weekend and if you do that its goodnight maryjane

  • Comment number 18.

    Something i have been very pleased to see over the last three weeks regardless of results is that england are capable of scoring tries again and aren't just a one dimensional forward based team anymore. Since Johnson took over they've slowly become better disciplined, better aimed and far more fluid. They're now a Team rather than just 15/22 players who've got together for a few weeks for a game or three. That is more important than the result this weekend. The point made about england having a first choice core of 25 players is an important one.
    Yes, there are still things that need to be sorted out technically and defensively. Yes, they still haven't beaten New Zealand since 2002 but Johnson has turned the side that accidentally stumbled into the 2007 world cup final into a side that should theoretically finish 3rd or better on something more important... Merit.
    I sincerely hope that MJ's contract is renewed until 2015 because despite the early criticism i think we've found the right man for this job. He didn't have much management credential when he started but he has developed not just the team but also himself and should be up on that rostrum with whoever the captain is at Twickenham in 2015 receiving the world cup.

  • Comment number 19.

    Thanks for all your comments. Keep them coming.

    Re: No 6) Thank you for pointing out that my lazy military reference is not actually technically correct. Although to continue the theme, I think England will need to fire the first shots on Saturday. Or as Martin Johnson put it yesterday: "We have got to start off at 100mph with that Test match passion, intensity, accuracy, understanding and discipline."

    As a few of you have pointed out, that latter one - discipline - will be particularly important. If Botha and company manage to provoke the likes of Hartley and Lawes into giving away penalties, Morne Steyn is probably the most consistent kicker in world rugby right now.

    Re: No 9) Carlos R - Fair point, but I still think if you asked any England supporter before the autumn series started, they'd consider three wins out of four an unqualified success. More importantly, this side would go to the World Cup next year knowing that under Johnson they had already beaten all of the leading contenders - Australia, South Africa, France - over the last two years, except for New Zealand (and Ireland, if you consider them a contender). And unless France upset the All Blacks in the group stages in RWC 2011, England - assuming they win their group, which will be no easy feat with Argentina and Scotland in there - couldn't meet New Zealand until the final.

    Re: No 11) You raise an interesting question. Number eight was one of the positions I was thinking of when I said Johnson 'might not have the depth he would like'. With James Haskell more of a blind-side and Jordan Crane the next number eight in line, Nick Easter has no obvious rivals at the moment. But Lawes - who has played a lot at blind-side - would seem to have all the physical attributes of a number eight. Next year may be a bit early in his career for such a key decision-making role though.

  • Comment number 20.

    This game will be won or lost in the backrow. Smith vs Croft is every bit as tasty as Easter vs Spies. Nullify their backrow, and our backs will be quids-in.

  • Comment number 21.

    Why was it a "surprise" defeat to Scotland Bryn?

    We have beaten Ireland and Argentina (twice) away and Australia last year.

    The Springboks are in chaos behind closed doors and it will go one of two ways tomorrow: They'll either re-group and come out firing or England will win easily spelling the end for Devilliers.

    Look at the penalty count from Murrayfield combined with John Barclay's work at the breakdown - if Moody can match that England are halfway there.

  • Comment number 22.

    FM Warrior - you're being awkward. I was at Murrayfield, as a neutral Englishman, and I saw the widespread amazement of Scots at the end result.

    It was a 'surprise' because:

    1) South Africa are world champions. Scotland didn't make the last 4.
    2) South Africa had recognised world class players who would walk into any current World XV (Matfield, Botha, M Steyn as a minimum)
    3) Scotland last beat SA in 2002.
    4) Scotland had only won 4 of 20 meetings, ever.
    5) Scotland got THRASHED by NZ a week earlier. SA had won.

    Enough reasons?

  • Comment number 23.

    This should be a pretty straight forward England victory. England playing well at the moment and South Africa in disarray. Gifted a win by a psychologically inept Welsh side and beaten by an average Scottish side.
    South Africa missing 9 / 10 first XV players, no international side, not even the All Blacks, can cope with so many first choice players missing, players sent home for failing drugs tests and a coach quickly losing his players faith.
    England will keep their discipline and win by 15+ points. Anything but a victory tomorrow against a SA 2nd XV would seriously damage the World Cup build up, which up until now is looking bang on track.

  • Comment number 24.

    I think that it will be a comfortable victory for the Boks, possibly by 15-20 points. England aren't as good as everyone is making out and the Boks will be desperate to regain their winning ways after last weeks poor display.

  • Comment number 25.

    #23 Spaced Invader, don't think I'm being awkward, it's just that under Hadden we would have lost against SA but Robinson has instilled a new found self-belief that breads throughout players and fans alike.

    Yes, many pundits predicted a Bokke win but they stumbled through Dublin and Cardiff after finishing bottom of the Tri Nations (including three thumpings) and Scotland were on a four game unbeaten streak before NZ arrived.

    Many Scotland fans expected two wins out of three and hopefully we'll get that tomorrow in Aberdeen (if the snow relents!)

  • Comment number 26.

    21, it was a surprise defeat because S.A are 1 of the best teams in the world (currently going thru a rough patch) and Scotland are limited and wouldnt get in the top 8 in the world

  • Comment number 27.

    "If Palmer and Lawes stay injury free, we will be talking about them as a pairing in similar terms to Botha and Matfield."

    Not sure I understand what that means.

    They've won a couple of games together. How can you possibly suggest that they are going to achieve what Matfield and Botha have?

    A bit of hyperbole never hurt anyone I suppose....

  • Comment number 28.

    I hope the Boks win so that they have to keep their clown of a coach for next years RWC!

  • Comment number 29.


    Over the years you tend to see patterns developing in sport. One is when the old champion gives way to the new champion.
    It might just be the sort of game when we see the new bloke eclipse the old - I'm talking about Matfield/Lawes; I think Lawes is going to be as big a player as Matfield, which is some compliment.
    Maybe a season too soon, maybe not.
    Worth remembering too that Croft was superb for the Lions in SA; they play the sort of game that suits him.
    Mouth-watering prospect all round - some free-running England stuff as part of a good win would round off a great AI series.

  • Comment number 30.

    @23

    "Anything but a victory tomorrow against a SA 2nd XV would seriously damage the World Cup build up, which up until now is looking bang on track."

    I don't think it would, i mean we've won a couple of games... I think it's too early to say our build up is back on track. I would say NZ's build up is looking bang on track...

  • Comment number 31.

    23. At 2:23pm on 26 Nov 2010, Watch and Learn wrote:
    This should be a pretty straight forward England victory. England playing well at the moment and South Africa in disarray. Gifted a win by a psychologically inept Welsh side and beaten by an average Scottish side.
    South Africa missing 9 / 10 first XV players, no international side, not even the All Blacks, can cope with so many first choice players missing, players sent home for failing drugs tests and a coach quickly losing his players faith.
    England will keep their discipline and win by 15+ points. Anything but a victory tomorrow against a SA 2nd XV would seriously damage the World Cup build up, which up until now is looking bang on track.

    WATCH AND LEARN, How's the World Cup build up looking now?

    I told you that England were getting a bit too big for their own boots, perhaps this result may make you realise that you are still a long way from catching the SH Teams!!!!

    Well done the Boks

 

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