Preview: England vs Springboks

RYAN VREDE, in London, analyses the key match-ups and picks the winner of the Test at Twickenham.

It shouldn’t be this way, but I sense the result of this Test will determine, in the minds of most, whether the Springboks’ season has been a success or failure. If, based on Heyneke Meyer’s standard, the Springboks want to be the best in the world, consistent victories over their benchmark, the All Blacks, represent the standard they must strive towards. And, having lost twice to the world champions this season, the outcome of this match is of relative irrelevance in the broader picture.

What a win will achieve is the stated goal of a tour sweep and indeed a significant step forward for this young and inexperienced team. The injury crisis they are enduring has been played down, but it would be grossly unfair to measure them against a standard they can be expected to achieve with a fully fit squad (as some have done). That said, I believe even the current group are superior to their embattled opponents across most key areas.

The Springboks have shown nothing on this tour to suggest they will replicate the comprehensive win they achieved here under Peter de Villiers a couple of years ago. Their kick-chase method has been lamented but statistics show it to have largely been successful in gaining the territory they seek. The sterility of their attack in the red zone is the real point of concern, with a high error rate further undermining their cause.

Of course the potential exists for something to click and for them to find a level of precision in their attack they’ve only exhibited at Loftus against Australia. However, the greater likelihood is for the Springboks to accumulate points gradually through the boot of Pat Lambie. For this to happen it is imperative that they are dominant at the gainline, forcing penalties in kickable positions. The responsibility will be on their primary strike runners to sustain their efforts through 80 minutes in this regard. They were excellent in patches over the last fortnight and when they’ve buzzed the Springboks have looked a force of note. Furthermore, if they can set up the rolling maul in good positions, England will have no response to the Springboks’ main attacking weapon.

England have shown themselves capable of contesting this facet of play well, stifling their opponents’ momentum. They’ve spoken all week about the level of physicality that will be required to blunt the Springboks, and how the visitors fare in the early exchanges will set the tone for the rest of the match.

They certainly have fronted defensively, conceding two tries on tour despite defending for touching 80 minutes (two halves when the opposition has been completely dominant). England will play a similar pattern to the Springboks, kicking deep and hoping to ‘play’ further up the pitch. The scrum will be an area they target, especially after the Springboks’ struggles in this facet of play against Scotland. If they gain dominance here, it will aid their cause to break down the tourists’ granitic defence. Similarly if they elevate their gainline play from their showing last week to boss the Boks, and create the time and space for Manu Tuilagi that Meyer so fears.

It would be a show of immense mettle if the Springboks produce a telling rebuttal to that examination. Many of the players are at the last hurdle of the longest season of their careers and a clutch of them have been carefully nursed through this week. It is critical that Meyer uses his bench intelligently, being sharp in his decisions in when to hook those who are struggling. I’ve watched from the stands as some of his charges have laboured on well after they’ve been spent, but England has the quality of player to exploit defensive vulnerabilities in a manner none of their previous tour opponents could.

I don’t believe it’ll be comprehensive, but I do think the Springboks will rouse themselves for the win.

VREDE’S CALL: Springboks by 6