The Springboks of old were never particularly subtle in their strategic approach: "skrum, skrum and skrum again" was their mantra and generally speaking, it proved every bit as effective as it was repetitive. Modern-day South Africans still regard the set-piece as the be-all and end-all, so when the young Harlequins prop Joe Marler takes the field at Kings Park here tomorrow for his England debut, he will find himself at the very heart of a contest many expect to be fiery in the extreme.
Happily for the tourists, Marler has experienced his fair share of public burnings and lived to tell the tale. One of two new caps in the red-rose starting line-up – the Exeter flanker Tom Johnson will be treading the same virgin territory, with the equally undecorated London Irish centre Jonathan Joseph on the bench – the 21-year-old forward from Sussex is crystal clear as to what awaits him. "Like everyone else in the side, I'll have to front up," he said yesterday. "The Boks will be physical, they'll be in our faces, they'll play on the edge and operate at the tipping point. It's up to us to match them."
Marler has been matching older, craftier, more battle-hardened opponents with increasing regularity for two years now. Right from the start of his Premiership career, good judges admired his energy and aggression; over the last couple of seasons, those same judges have noted a sharp improvement in his scrummaging technique – a technique that is sure to be tested by the Springbok tight head Jannie du Plessis.
"We did a lot of live scrummaging in training during the Six Nations and we could see Joe growing in confidence with every session," said the England head coach Stuart Lancaster, who added that Marler might well have been promoted to the starting combination for this game even if the incumbent, Alex Corbisiero, had been fully fit. (Corbisiero has not trained at maximum intensity since undergoing surgery on a biceps injury last month.)
"I suppose the culmination was the Premiership final a couple of weeks ago, when Joe showed his qualities against Dan Cole, our first-choice tight head and a very experienced player at international level," the coach continued. "This game will be very intense and until players have been in the arena, it's difficult to know how they'll deal with it. But I believe Joe has found a way of staying on top of things in the disciplinary sense while continuing to play the kind of aggressive rugby we want to see from him. He's been dying to be a part of things and he deserves his chance."
Known throughout English rugby for his "interesting" hair arrangements, Marler the Mohican is not planning anything extra-special in this department. "My 'barnet' tools are back home, as is my trusted barber," he reported. He does, however, intend to catch the eye in those areas of the contest where daft haircuts tend not to impress: namely, the scrum, the maul and the breakdown.
"I'm buzzing," he said. "There were a couple of shaky moments early on when I went up against Dan in the Premiership final and I thought to myself: 'If you don't start getting it right, you could be seriously embarrassed here.' Things went pretty well from there on. I think I respond well to adversity: I remember being booed off at Kingsholm by the Gloucester crowd, who didn't like the way I looked or the way I played. I loved that. Everyone used to think Quins had a soft underbelly, but we decided we weren't going to be bullied every week and changed the mindset. I'm not going to be a one-man band, going around looking for scraps with the South Africans, but it's important for us to be strong on the field."
Johnson's inclusion in the back row ahead of the Northampton forward Phil Dowson is significant: in the absence of the injured Tom Croft, by some distance the quickest member of the England pack, the newcomer has an opportunity to force a long-term change in the pecking order. So too does the full-back Mike Brown, who has not started a Test since 2008. Another player riding the Harlequins wave, his strong kicking game and reliability in contact has persuaded Lancaster to shift Ben Foden to the left wing after a long run of appearances in the No 15 shirt.
Lancaster had been brooding on some of these tinkerings since the end of the Six Nations. "The important thing is to make changes at the right time and ensure the transition is as seamless as possible," he said. Yet of all the selectorial calls for this game, the scrum-half decision was perhaps the most delicate. By restoring Ben Youngs of Leicester as his starting No 9 and dropping Lee Dickson of Northampton to the bench, the coach acted largely on evidence provided during the comprehensive victory over Ireland at Twickenham in mid-March. The complicating factor was the rapid rehabilitation of Danny Care, omitted from the Six Nations squad for disciplinary reasons but back on top of his game now.
"We have a very strong bank of half-backs and I expect Danny to perform really well when he gets a run in Kimberley next week," Lancaster said, referring to the first of two midweek games against South African Barbarian opposition on Wednesday. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Care will add to his cap tally before the end of the tour.Reuse content