RYAN VREDE analyses the key match-ups and picks the winner in Saturday’s match at Kings Park.
It has been 12 years since England beat the Springboks in South Africa, but you get the sense they strongly believe they can snap that streak. Their quiet confidence is likely rooted primarily in this new-look group having had a strong Six Nations campaign, in which they beat France away, extended preparation time and the Springboks’ limitations in this regard.
They also give you the impression they think that is their most gifted squad in years. However, while they have some players of high promise in their back division, I have reservations about their pack’s ability to match the Springboks’ physicality.
The gainline battle is unfailingly key to victory in Test matches and with the the Springboks’ key strike runners all boasting appreciable bulk, they will be expected to boss this facet of play on attack. England’s 10-12 axis of Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt will be targeted, with Frans Steyn in particular asked to test their defensive resolve, a battle I believe he will win.
England, however, will encounter an opponent high on defensive aggression, but, given the aforementioned preparation time, relatively low on synergy. If they can get the likes of Manu Tuilagi into space, the midfielder could ask some stern questions, especially if he isolates counterpart Jean de Villiers, who isn’t accustomed to the defensive demands of a position coaches agree is the hardest to defend in.
South Africa will hope to limit Tuilagi and co’s attacking opportunities to deep in their own territory through a kick-chase tactic. Here’s where there are some concerns. Scrumhalf Francois Hougaard will be asked to kick regularly, but this facet of his game hasn’t been strong in Super Rugby. England, if granted broken-field opportunities through poor kicks England have the personnel to punish their hosts. Hougaard must deliver a kicking performance that surpasses anything he has produced this season. His showing in this facet of play at Soccer City in 2010 suggests he has it in him. Here’s hoping he replicates that performance.
The other area of interest is the lineouts, where debutant Juandre Kruger will take command. The Bulls man has been central to the their success at the set piece (no team has stolen more balls, or is own secure on their own feed) and by all accounts has a Matfield-like dedication to studying the opposition’s lineout. Given that the majority of tries in Test rugby in the last two years have been birthed from lineout feeds in or just outside the opposition’s 22, Kruger will be absolutely key to the Springboks’ success. England have a relatively new second-row combination as well, so they may not have the experience and tactical intelligence to exploit vulnerabilities here. I sense Kruger will step up.
Despite Hougaard’s aforementioned kicking concerns, in Morne Steyn, Zane Kirchner and Frans Steyn they have enough tactical kickers to limit England to launches from unfavourable field positions. I expect them to succeed in their bid to pressure England into infringements and turnovers in their territory. Morne Steyn’s goal kicking will again be decisive and, with Frans Steyn’s gun boot, England will also be acutely aware of ill-discipline in positions that would not usually be kickable ones.
The Boks also have a far superior bench that will galvanise them as the second half wears on. All this points to towards a successful start to Heyneke Meyer’s reign and an important psychological blow in the three-Test series.
VREDE’S CALL: Springboks by 9
Springboks – 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jean de Villiers (c), 12 Frans Steyn, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Juandré Kruger, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Coenie Oosthuizen, 18 Flip van der Merwe, 19 Keegan Daniel, 20 Ruan Pienaar, 21 Pat Lambie, 22 Wynand Olivier.
England – 15 Mike Brown, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Manusamoa Tuilagi, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Ben Foden, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 Tom Johnson, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Mouritz Botha, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Subs: 16 Lee Mears, 17 Paul Doran Jones, 18 Tom Palmer, 19 Phil Dowson, 20 Lee Dickson, 21 Toby Flood, 22 Jonathan Joseph