England in search of morale-boosting victory
In many ways, the forecast wind and rain for Twickenham today are the least of England’s worries. The home side have not beaten South Africa in their past 10 meetings, badly need a morale-boosting result after last week’s loss to Australia and still have the All Blacks to come next week. If the weather is rubbish, it will simply be one of numerous character-building challenges heading their way.
England do at least have a decent record on horrid days, having won in foul conditions in Scotland and Italy last season. The intensely physical Springboks will present a sterner test but there was no mistaking the terse pre-game message from the English forwards coach Graham Rowntree.
“We’re still hurting from last week,” said Rowntree, determined to atone for the “frustrating” 20-14 loss to the Wallabies. “It still hurts me and the lads and we want to put it right.”
No one knows better than Rowntree that a narrow-minded contest of multiple scrums and lineouts, persistent tactical kicking and defensive muscle is right up South Africa’s no-frills alley. Already they have seen off Ireland and Scotland and look a much more effective unit with Ulster’s Ruan Pienaar at scrumhalf and Bath’s Francois Louw on the flank, neither of whom started the 14-14 draw between the sides in Port Elizabeth in June.
The latter result clearly offers some succour to the management. Stuart Lancaster has cited the pre-match mood at the Nelson Mandela Bay stadium as the most focused he has known in his time in charge and Rowntree is demanding similar intensity this time.
“We’ve had some very honest meetings this week. In Port Elizabeth we were out to put a few things right. That’s where we are now, too.”
The wounded beast has to be respected, as the Wallabies demonstrated last week. England have also wisely added more power to their ranks but so much hinges on their precision and decision-making under pressure, both suspect against Australia. Apart from the first half against Ireland, the Bok pack have held sway in Dublin and Edinburgh and swept Australia aside 31-8 in their most recent encounter in the Rugby Championship.
England’s mauling, in particular, will need to improve dramatically if the visitors are to be repulsed.
On the plus side neither Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira nor Bismarck du Plessis are around to stiffen the Bok frontrow and Heyneke Meyer’s team have not exactly been scoring tries for fun.
Victory would help Lancaster’s cause as he seeks to cross the swaying, precarious bridge which separates Test potential from consistent international achievement. Does he have enough players of the necessary world-class calibre? The question still hangs in the autumnal air but Dylan Hartley, Tom Croft, Courtney Lawes and Ben Foden should all be back available for the Six Nations and the likes of Jonathan Joseph and Joe Launchbury have big careers ahead of them. A couple of good wins and the future will look rosy again.
There is something about England’s obvious hunger which suggests a ferocious contest destined to be settled by the odd inspired penalty kick out of the anticipated Twickenham swamp.