This afternoon we will discover precisely how classy these South Africans are and exactly how far up the steep slopes of rugby's Mount Olympus their unstinting efforts have taken them. A repeat of last year's Twickenham performance, when nine of today's starting line-up inflicted a heavy 29- 11 defeat on the English, would undoubtedly elevate them towards the summit. That, though, is surely too much to ask, even of a team boasting such formidable physical and psychological strengths. Sheer fatigue is likely to cramp their style.
Indeed, it may well go down to the same length of wire that separated England and Australia seven days ago. Hard though it is to imagine Lawrence Dallaglio's outfit pursuing an 18th straight win - three on the trot would be a Godsend right now - they are every bit as motivated as the tourists for this bout of rough and tumble. It is the last time they will welcome serious southern hemisphere opposition to Twickenham before next October's World Cup confrontation with New Zealand and another defeat, no matter how narrow, would send spirits plummeting towards the earth's core.
"It's definitely a must-win game for us," agreed Clive Woodward yesterday.
The England coach's record against the big three from south of the equator is not exactly inspiring - two draws, three fairly honourable defeats and four absolute pannings in nine outings - and he simply cannot afford to go into next year's showpiece tournament with a Tri-Nations blank against his name. "I don't feel under pressure," he insisted before heading off to make his final preparations. Maybe not, but he probably should.
England are well capable of dominating the tight exchanges against a Springbok front five of no great moment; indeed, Martin Johnson and Tim Rodber will never have a better opportunity of making hay against a Springbok pack, given Krynauw Otto's anonymity and Mark Andrews' declining powers. The home side might even catch fire out wide if the exasperating Mike Catt, who tends to do for English nerves what Watergate did for Nixon, gets through the first quarter without a major crisis of confidence.
However, the real game-breakers will be clad in Springbok green. If Joost van der Westhuizen has been a key figure on this tour, helping his side out of the smelly stuff against both Wales and Scotland, Bobby Skinstad has been something else again; there is no loose forward in the world quite like the 22-year-old Capetonian and, assuming he is on his game today, he has the pace to make life hell for Catt in both attack and defence. Skinstad admits to feeling "slightly weary" but, unfortunately for England, he could be sound asleep and still catch their quickest threequarter in a 100-metre dash.
The golden boy was making no predictions yesterday but there was an unmistakable vein of grim determination running through his words. "There is always pressure on a South African side because our people expect us to win," he said, "and while I'm not feeling it too badly myself, the prospect of not breaking the record after all we've been through together just doesn't bear thinking about." It did not sound like a form of pressure with which England are at all familiar.
A Springbok victory, confidently predicted by everyone from Francois Pienaar to Graham Henry, would give South Africa a fifth Grand Slam of Britain and Ireland in seven attempts; a remarkable record of sustained achievement when compared to the solitary successes registered by both New Zealand and Australia. But it is the other record that really interests them and when a Bokke side is interested, as was Pienaar's vintage during the last World Cup, it takes a superhuman effort to deny them.
Gary Teichmann's quiet war, page 23
ENGLAND v SOUTH AFRICA
N Beal. Northampton 15 P Montgomery W Province
T Underwood Newcastle 14 S Terblanche Boland
P de Glanville Bath 13 A Snyman Blue Bulls
J Guscott Bath 12 C Stewart W Province
D Luger Harlequins 11 P Rossouw W Province
M Catt Bath 10 H Honiball Natal
M Dawson Northampton 9 J van der Westhuizen Blue Bulls
J Leonard Harlequins 1 R Kempson Natal R Cockerill Leicester 2 J Dalton Golden Lions
D Garforth Leicester 3 A Garvey Natal
M Johnson Leicester 4 K Otto Blue Bulls
T Rodber Northampton 5 M Andrews Natal
L Dallaglio Wasps, capt 6 J Erasmus Free State
N Back Leicester 7 R Skinstad W Province
R Hill Saracens 8 G Teichmann Natal, capt
Referee: P O'Brien (NZ) Kick-off: 2.30pm (Sky Sports 2, 1.30pm)