The decision to play Manu Tuilagi at No 12 is based on England’s desperation to win the collisions and subsequently nullify the Springboks’ tactical kicking strengths at altitude.
On Thursday, England coach Stuart Lancaster announced that flyhalf Toby Flood would start the second Test against the Boks and that Tuilagi, who has yet to play a Test at No 12, would be on his outside.
These selections, as well as that of Test rookie Jonathan Joseph at No 13, have been described as bold at best and desperate at worst. There is a sense in the English rugby fraternity that the coach is guilty of too big a gamble in a match that could decide the series.
Lancaster, however, feels that these players could hold the key to a famous upset. It goes without saying that the England pack will need to out-muscle their South African counterparts if they hope to win, but on the back of a strong display at the tackle, England will also play Flood and Tuilagi closer to the gainline.
‘Toby is the most experienced player in the group, and he has a good relationship with Ben [Youngs, scrumhalf] and Manu having played together with them at club level,’ Lancaster said. ‘We are expecting that Leicester triumvirate to serve us well.’
The 46-Test veteran will play the role of decision-maker, while Tuilagi will be tasked with providing the team with go-forward in that No 12 channel. The Bok midfield proved difficult to breach in the first Test, and it could be that the less physically imposing Morné Steyn, who is a notoriously inconsistent defender, will be targeted.
Bok coach Heyneke Meyer said earlier in the week that he expected the English to alter their tactics. Lancaster confirmed that the visitors intend to play more ball-in-hand rugby. The England coach believes the selections in the backline are geared towards this type of strategy.
‘I believe it’s important to have two ball players in our backline, but you also have to select according to what’s required on attack and defence,’ he said. ‘We recognise the threat of the Bok midfield, and we know that we have to win that gainline battle.
‘Manu’s the type of guy who can get us over the gainline. In the subsequent phases, we have the players at 10 and 13 who can then play with more width. That’s the thinking behind the combinations.
‘The injury to Brad Barritt has forced the change in midfield, but it’s also presented us with an opportunity. It’s Toby’s time to play at 10, and in Manu and JJ [Joseph] we have some really exciting young players.
‘There will be a different emphasis on the way we play this week, but we will still look to play in the right areas of the field. If it’s on to play, we will definitely give it a go.’
There remains some concern in English rugby circles regarding Tuilagi’s aptitude as a Test No 12. He hasn’t played many games for Leicester in that position, although it was as at No 12 where he troubled the touring Springboks in 2009.
The Tigers went on to win that game 22-17, and the Samoan-born centre hasn’t forgotten what it feels like to beat the Boks.
‘I really enjoyed that match,’ he said, ‘and I’m looking forward to playing that physical, in-your-face game when I play at No 12 again this Saturday.
‘We really want to keep the ball more and create opportunities, and I’m very focused on what I need to do. It’s a huge challenge, but I’m really excited about it.’
Like Lancaster, Flood has full confidence in Tuilagi’s potential as a tackle-breaking, ground-gainer.
‘Manu understands his game very well. He will be in the game a lot more this week, he’s the ball-carrier the rest of us will play around.’
Flood suggested that the team that gains the ascendancy at the collisions will enjoy benefits in other aspects of the contest. Defensively speaking, England will aim to pressure the Bok forwards as well as the Bok halfbacks. If they are successful, they may limit the hosts’ tactical kicking strengths.
‘We will have to be aggressive and pragmatic, and we must ensure that we don’t give them any opportunities,’ said Flood. ‘It’s always difficult going toe-to-toe with the South Africans. They can play expansively but that is often on the back of a big game up front, they want to gain momentum first.
‘They also kick very well. They have Pat Lambie and the Steyn brothers, as we like to call them, so obviously they are well equipped in that department. They also understand how to use that altitude to their advantage.
‘For us, it all boils down to nullifying their kicking game this weekend. And to do that we first have to put pressure on them up front.’
By Jon Cardinelli, in Johannesburg