Boks paint themselves into a corner

JON CARDINELLI says that if England dominate the forward exchanges this Saturday, the Springboks will be exposed for their lack of versatility.

The England 22 will only be confirmed on Thursday afternoon, but there have been suggestions of a side geared towards a slow-moving frontline scrap. Unlike his opposite number, Martin Johnson will make these selections based on the belief that if you beat the Boks at the set-pieces and collisions, they have no Plan B.

It’s a belief that’s been underlined by the more physical hammerings the Boks have endured over the past 12 months. On the first game of their 2009 tour to Europe, the Boks were badly beaten in the forward exchanges by a fiery French side. Ireland were next to take them on in the trenches, and all three of New Zealand’s 2010 wins were achieved through uncompromising forward dominance.

England haven’t beaten the Boks since 2006, but are enjoying a revival that is in large part down to the feats of the heavies. They surprised the mighty All Blacks in the second half of their 6 November meeting, and then smashed the Wallabies in the forward exchanges the following week. They go into this clash with their tails up, knowing that in their current guise, the Boks are a team that battles to last the 80 minutes.

The fact of the matter is confirmed through their two tour wins rather than their defeat to Scotland. The Boks produced arguably their strongest and smartest forward display in the first 60 minutes of the Test against Ireland. They then battled to maintain the momentum in the dying minutes. Conversely, they took an entire half to get their pack going forward the very next week in Cardiff.

England are in confident mood, but the talk coming out their camp suggests they’re anything but complacent. They’ve scalped the Aussies, but they want the prize head of Bok to go with their 2010 achievements. They’ll be motivated from the outset this Saturday, and if the Boks don’t display the necessary accuracy and intensity, they’re in for another embarrassing afternoon.

Johnson’s likely to favour scrumming powerhouse Andrew Sheridan in the front row. Sheridan caused the Boks problems at the 2007 World Cup, despite England’s failure in other departments. The Bok scrum has been inconsistent on this tour, and were troubled by Scotland last week. As Peter de Villiers has said, the hosts will be favourites in this area.

Courtney Lawes, Tom Palmer and Tom Croft are useful lineout options as well as powerful ball-carriers. The Bok lineout battled in difficult conditions last week, and with the weather expected to take a turn for the worse in London, they could struggle again. Meanwhile, the English will relish the assistance from Mother Nature. The news that the Boks are bitching about the weather will be music to their ears.

Johnson should also include British & Irish Lions lock Simon Shaw among the reserves. Shaw lent the Lions some grit when he was eventually selected for the second Test in the 2009 series. The battle for ascendancy in the first half an hour is going to be crucial, but Shaw will keep the English fight going long into the second half.

The Boks have powerful ball carriers in their loose trio and midfield. Johnson will favour Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall in the latter department in an attempt to counter those strengths.

If the Boks fail in their quest for set-piece and gain-line dominance, then they are in trouble. The conditions will be bad and favour the team that is more accurate and has the momentum. There should be minimal opportunities for counter-attacking rugby where players like Gio Aplon and Lwazi Mvovo could come into the frame.

Failure to dominate up front will also pressure the Bok kickers, whose tactical punts haven’t been accurate of late. With ball-in-hand, Morne Steyn doesn’t have a record of creating space for his backline to break. England will look to pressure the Bok pack, but they will also look to pressure the Bok halfbacks. And if they succeed, South Africa will have no answer.

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