LONDON, ENGLAND – The 2014 Autumn Internationals got off to a rough start for both South Africa and England, with each losing their first match. For both teams, this Saturday’s clash is an absolute must-win. If England falls again at home, the narrative going into their World Cup year will be that Stuart Lancaster’s side can’t beat the Southern Hemisphere’s best. If South Africa lose, they will suddenly be concerned about their ability to travel, after two years without facing the Northern Hemisphere’s best (they haven’t faced England or Ireland since 2012, but have played Scotland three times). RugbyWrapUp has you covered with our position-by-position breakdown of the weekend’s biggest match.
Pretty much every section could start with the phrase “the Springbok (fill in position/player here) had a tough outing against Ireland. The front row was particularly culpable. Ireland absolutely bullied the breakdown, and South Africa’s normally mobile props were nowhere to be found. Tendai Mtawarira made only one carry and had four tackles in sixty six minutes of work, figures that must improve. The Springbok lineout was impeccable, a rare positive takeaway, but they conceded an eye-popping 18 turnovers. Bismark du Plessis and his brother, Jannie are not known for having two bad matches in a row. England will counter with an unchanged front row, consisting of Joe Marler, Dyland Hartley, and Dave Wilson. All three played well in Saturday’s test against New Zealand. Hartley in particular impressed with his set pieces, and drew a yellow card from Dane Coles by being annoying (ie, himself). Mullan and Brookes helped shove the New Zealand scrum around when they got on, a high recommendation. England’s props are probably their fourth and fifth choices if all other options are healthy next year (behind Dan Cole, Mako Vunipola, and Alex Corbesiero). They have done an admirable job holding the fort, but it is tough to see them besting this once in a generation front-row for South Africa.
England once more are ruing their injury list. Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury seemed to be one of the best combinations in world rugby, with Geoff Parling proving more than capable back-up. Now, Launchbury and Parling are out, and England are down to their fourth and fifth choices in a position once more. Dave Attwood more than stepped up to the challenge on the week of his child’s birth, but George Kruis was directly responsible for the All Black’s second try, and must do better if he comes on late in the match. Victor Matfield continues to be an ageless wonder for the Boks, playing outstandingly at the tender age of 37. He is paired by Eben Etzebeth, who was referred to as South Africa’s enforcer continually by the Sky Sports commentators. He and Matfield will have to counter the mobility of Lawes, who went out early last week with a concussion.
Slight Edge: England
Duane Vermeulen is a deserving finalist for IRB player of the year, but his flankers are not quite so prolific. Schalk Burger was once one of the best in the world, but that day has almost certainly passed, while Marcell Coetzee has struggled to impose himself on the international stage. Coetzee did his share of hard work last week, but he will need to step up in a big way for South Africa to claim a definitive advantage in the forwards. This is one place where England has consistency, and it tells. Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw work exceptionally well together, with Robshaw taking on some of the hard tackling work and Wood turning the ball over at the ruck. Nobody wants to see Billy Vunipola running at them. If England can keep possession, and get him running at the Springboks, they will be sure to have some productive line breakas.
South Africa tries an entirely new 9-10 axis after last week’s disaster in Dublin. Pat Lambie will return to fly-half, and Cobus Reinach is named as the starting 9. Reinach had an impressive Super Rugby campaign, while Lambie is trying to reclaim his spot from new golden boy Handre Pollard. Heyneke Meyer insists that this is normal squad rotation, but the Boks lost the game at fly-half last week. Jonny Sexton produced an absolute masterclass from the hand and from the boot. Meyer expressed dismay at his side’s naivite, explaining that adjustments must be made for the stylistic differences between the Rugby Championship and tours to the Northern Hemisphere. Owen Farrell and Danny Care get another chance after their wayward kicking attracted criticism in the wake of Saturday’s loss. It now appears that Farrell will never be able to shake his doubters, who have persisted over three years of solid performances. Care is even more polarizing. Many thought that Ben Youngs was in line for a recall after a poor performance, but Care retains his place and will know that the pressure is on. South Africa’s half-backs haven’t played much match time together, always worrying when faced with a duo who know each other well on the opposite side of the ball.
Jean de Villiers and Jan Serfontein are two of the more imposing backs operating right now. Their ability to run straight through defensive lines is astonishing. England will try to counter with their rush defense, but Kyle Eastmond is still a major defensive question mark. Brad Barritt has lashed out at his “one-dimensional” tag this week, claiming that he can be an offensive threat as well. That has certainly been the case at Saracens, but England struggled to actually get ball out to the backs last weekend, especially in the second half, where they had essentially no possession. If Barritt can get involved, he could be a difference maker.
Big Edge: South Africa
This could be where the match is decided. Jonny May has the ability to punish any wayward kick, as he finally showed on Saturday. Anthony Watson can absolutely do the same, and his dynamism in attack could be a huge positive for England if they are able to get their wings involved this weekend. South Africa have brought JP Pietersen off the bench after his late try, and he will start opposite Bryan Habana and Willie Le Roux. Habana now lacks the explosive pace that introduced him to the world, but he has more than replaced it with veteran know-how.
Advantage: South Africa
Realistically, I see South Africa bouncing back in a big way from their loss in Dublin. England are essentially playing fourth string at far too many positions to be the favorites. Though their starting fifteen may actually be one of the best in rugby, their inability to stay healthy is alarming, and you have to play with the men in your match day squad. South Africa in a squeaker, by 3.