England’s ten game unbeaten run and their credibility as potential World No1’s is on the line against South Africa at Twickenham tomorrow.
Remarkably, England, the second best team in the world, haven’t beaten the Springboks since 2006 which involves 11 defeats and a draw and this obvious flaw in their rugby CV cannot be allowed to continue. South Africa’s most recent major test loss was a debilitating 57-15 hammering by the All Blacks on their own soil and they are struggling with injuries and a confidence.
While England have failed to beat the Springboks in the last decade, New Zealand, the double World Cup winners and No1 ranked team ( despite last weekend’s loss to Ireland) have in the same period beaten South Africa 17 times and lost just six games. Of even more relevance is the statistic that shows New Zealand have won nine of the their last 10 matches with South Africa.
Those are the kind of numbers you would expect from the best team in the sport and why England’s dreadful record has to be turned around at Twickenham.
England could end the year unbeaten and take their run of victories – which started against Uruguay in the World Cup – to 14 by the time the four test Old Mutual Wealth Series ends, having also involved games with Fiji, Argentina and Australia.
That would allow England to laud it over the All Blacks whose loss in Chicago against the Irish left their world record run at 18 – something England can eclipse if they can keep an unbeaten run going until the end of the Six Nations. A repeat of their Grand Slam success would take England to 19 and while they will not have faced New Zealand, it would be a run of success to impress even the most sceptical of All Blacks supporters.
However, that will all become irrelevant if England fail to defeat South Africa in front of 82,000 England supporters who have become accustomed to success under Eddie Jones, the head coach who took over in the wake of last year’s World Cup debacle. So far, Jones has played a blinder and having been the coach who masterminded Japan’s historic World Cup victory 34-32 over South Africa in Brighton, he is uniquely qualified to help England end their run of defeats.
While Jones insists that incredible result has little relevance to Twickenham, it will provide the head coach with reference points. Japan, with current England forwards coach Steve Borthwick running their line out, took care of their own ball and played an unstructured game that kept the South African’s guessing. Jones know that if you allow the massive South African pack to drag you into an extended arm-wrestle it will only denude your own powers.
With the South Africans operating an “ in-your-face” rush defence, just flinging the ball out wide is potential suicide and that is why the ball carrying of Billy and Mako Vunipola working off outside half George Ford and inside centre Owen Farrell will be vital. England have to get over the gain line quickly and recycle rapidly to force the big South African forwards to back pedal a pace and hope to create a numbers game that is firmly their favour.
With uncapped Nathan Hughes and Kyle Sinckler waiting on the replacements bench, Jones has enough cavalry to maintain this hi-tempo attacking game plan deep into the final quarter where New Zealand have been so effective.
While what Jones describes as “physical chess” is being played out in the forwards, the result looks certain to be shaped by the metronomic goal kicking of Farrell, who missed the start of the season with hip and back problems. Remarkably, his first game back was a European Champions Cup match away to Toulon and his boot helped Saracens launch the defence of their title with a fantastic win. He is currently on 478 points for his country which puts him second to Jonny Wilkinson (1179).
Farrell and Ford are absolutely crucial to Jones’s vision for the team and they will be asked to play in the faces of the South African defence. England have turned to rugby league coach Jason Ryles for extra tackling power and the two man hit option is designed to help shore up Ford’s defensive channel. He is an obvious target and expect to see Farrell swap places with Ford on defence as one variation designed to halt those big South African ball carriers.
Jones gained an insight into the South African rugby psyche having been the technical advisor during their 2007 World Cup campaign that saw them defeat England in the final. Allister Coetzee, the current South African coach, was also part of that Cup management group and Jones enjoyed his company. While Jones has kept his honeymoon period going with England, Coetzee is under intense pressure from a demanding South African rugby public that constantly questions his selection policy and tactics.
Coetzee will be facing even more flak after this match as England, even without a raft of injured players including Maro Itoje, George Kruis, James Haskell, Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson, will still have enough fire power to beat South Africa and end their dreadful run.
As seen in the Evening Standard