Bok bullies key in close-quarter scrap

JON CARDINELLI writes the forward battles as well as the physical clashes in midfield promise to be the most significant in Saturday’s Test at Kings Park.

There’s already been a fair bit said about the high level of physicality we should expect in the series opener. It’s always been decisive in previous bouts between South Africa and England, and in any sporting series, the team that lands the first blow is often the team that sets the tone for that game as well as the matches to follow.

South Africa boast a terrific record against England. There was a time when they struggled against this side, but since Jake White’s Boks broke the Twickenham curse in 2006, the Boks have gone undefeated in seven Tests. Every one of those victories has been built on forward dominance, and across the board the Boks have aimed to win the collisions more than anything else.

We’ve all heard why Heyneke Meyer has selected the squad that he has, and why he is not taking the English lightly. The Boks will go into this series without several key forwards, Schalk Burger, Duane Vermeulen and Andries Bekker to be specific, and this makes them a slightly less imposing force at the set pieces and collisions.

Bekker is without peer as a lineout manager in this country while Burger and Vermeulen are among the most abrasive loose forwards on the planet. There are still some quality alternatives, and Juandre Kruger will be expected to play a Bekker-type role at No 5. Similarly, Willem Alberts and Marcell Coetzee will have massive jobs to do on defence and in a ball-carrying capacity.

Winning clean set-piece ball and then dominating the battle at the gainline will be the Boks’ priority on Saturday. Expect the hosts to keep it simple. They haven’t had much time to prepare as a unit, so there won’t be anything flash or fancy. They will aim to subdue the English through a powerful set-piece performance and then an even stronger ball-carrying showing round the fringes and in midfield.

They will also aim to pressure the English back three with a barrage of high kicks. They have the physicality in chasers like Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen to trouble the English in the air. Kicking specialist MornĂ© Steyn is a terrific exponent of this tactic and will cause the visitors problems, and South Africa should benefit from any mistakes. However, I’m concerned that Francois Hougaard, who is being touted to start, is not as accurate with his tactical kicking and may not be as successful in creating that pressure.

If the Boks manage to win the set-piece battles, they have the midfield to take them beyond the gainline. In Frans Steyn and Jean de Villiers they have two men in excess of 100kg, and as was evident at last year’s World Cup, Steyn is difficult to stop whenever he gets the ball on the front foot. England will have some physical midfield players in Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi, but if the England pack is retreating, Barritt and Tuilagi could be in for a difficult time on defence.

While I think that Hougaard has struggled this season with his tactical kicking, he is the type of player suited to such a combative fixture. Again, much will depend on the collective showing of the Bok pack, but if the home side dominates, Hougaard can take advantage with those strong runs from the base. If anything, he will keep the English loose forwards a bit closer to the ruck and create more space for Frans Steyn and De Villiers to run at the defence and thus cross the gainline.

To say physicality will be all-important in a South Africa vs England clash is stating the obvious. However, the selections that Meyer is set to make suggest he is not taking this England side for granted. If you need proof that there are no guarantees in matches like these, then look no further than Scotland’s win against the Wallabies in Australia on Tuesday. A big, physical Bok pack will be selected for Saturday’s match as well as a combative centre pairing.

The Boks will aim to play a game of pressure and use the big boys to full effect. It may not be pretty and in the first game of the season it won’t be polished, but Meyer’s method is the right one considering the mindset of the opposition.

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