England can win tonight's game against the Springboks – by common consent the decisive fixture in Pool A and our most important match since the World Cup final in Sydney four years ago. It is not a view widely shared by followers of this tournament, but to my mind, the situation is far from hopeless. The first difficult hurdle has already been negotiated, for the England coaches have their selection right. They could not have legislated for the injuries to the two playmakers, Jonny Wilkinson and Olly Barkley, but the rest was in their hands. I think the line-up is spot on.
I welcome the return of Martin Corry to the back row, and I welcome his return as captain in the enforced absence of Phil Vickery. I'm also pleased to see Jason Robinson at full-back and Paul Sackey on the wing. Jason knows the score on the big occasion, and he provides some security at No 15. Sackey has the ability to ask questions of the Boks, both with his pace and his willingness to chance to his arm and do things a little differently.
It was a big decision to drop the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio and restore Corry as the senior figure in the pack, but I have no argument with it. During my time as coach, Corry was my leader on the field. England know what to expect from the Boks, and it is not an enticing prospect in anyone's language. The South Africans will be ferociously aggressive; not only will they seek to beat England, they will seek to beat them up. It is the Springbok way, especially on the big occasion. In circumstances like these, attitude counts for a tremendous amount. Corry is a man with attitude.
This is a bodies-on-the-line kind of game, and Corry is extremely good at ensuring his players go in with the correct mentality. He is also an important figure in the line-out, an area I see as being crucial. We know the South African line-out is a top-class operation, one of the finest in world rugby: Victor Matfield is a tremendous athlete who analyses well on the hoof and runs the show with considerable expertise; Juan Smith offers a dependable option at the back; Bakkies Botha is all muscle and naked confrontation at the front. England will have to perform at the optimum to match the Boks in this crucial phase. Corry understands the requirements, and with Ben Kay, his Leicester clubmate, calling the shots, I expect him to work the Springboks hard.
In addition, England can take comfort from the fact that the Frenchman Joël Jutge has been appointed as referee. Jutge is not the greatest official in the world when it comes to controlling the line-out. When he refereed the British and Irish Lions against the All Blacks in the first Test in Christchurch in 2005, this vital phase was reduced to a complete jungle. If the chaos suited the New Zealanders on that occasion, I have a feeling it will suit England tonight. The South Africans believe they will dominate in this area, but if Jutge is as laissez-faire as usual, they will find their superiority diminished. With a little luck and a lot of determination, England could really mess the Boks around.
That said, it is essential that England's tactical game stacks up. The first requirement will be a completely accurate performance with the boot. This is obviously a matter for Andy Farrell, drafted in for the injured outside-halves, but not for Farrell alone. Robinson has to make the right decisions from deep; Shaun Perry must turn the Springboks from the base of the scrum and at the breakdown. Perhaps most importantly of all, Mike Catt has to bring all his experience to bear on the kicking game. I want to see the Boks spending an uncomfortable amount of time in their own third of the field, and England getting the scoreboard turning by taking three points whenever they are on offer. If England can find a way of dominating the territorial battle, anything is possible.
On the subject of Farrell, I have this to say. A couple of years ago, I argued strongly that he should be brought across from rugby league. Many people have questioned that judgement, but I stand by it 100 per cent. He has had his problems: he lost a year to injury, and there were disagreements over his best position, too. But Farrell knows what it is to perform at the very top end of international sport, and I believe he has what it takes to make a success of it tonight. He will relish the pressure and respond to it. I'm confident he will deliver.
The underdogs are having their day
If England have had some unforeseen difficulties on the injury and suspension fronts, we should all celebrate the impact made by the so-called "minnows" in the first week of the competition. I don't for a single second include the Argentines in this, although most people expected the French to win the opening match in Paris. The Pumas are a fine side, strong up front and blessed with a number of exceptionally gifted players – Agustin Pichot, Juan Martin Hernandez, Felipe Contepomi, Ignacio Corleto – behind the scrum. They deserved their victory in St-Denis in a wonderfully competitive match that was handled superbly by my fellow man of Somerset, Tony Spreadbury. His was the bravest of refereeing performances. No one could ever accuse him of being a "homer".
The teams I do include are the likes of the United States, who played with considerable skill against England in Lens, and Canada, who showed signs of returning to their former selves in giving the Welsh a hurry-up in the first half of their game in Nantes. Most of all, I am thinking of Georgia, who laid into the Pumas on Tuesday night and made a real fist of a game most people believed they would lose heavily. The Georgians were born to play rugby. They have a big pack, they are physically powerful in all departments and they play as though their lives depend on it. Good on them.
There has been a lot of talk of late of a 16-team tournament in 2011, rather than the current 20-team arrangement. I believe we should be expanding the competition, not shrinking it, and I'd love to think that, by 2019, there will be 32 sides on the fixture list. The second-tier countries improve only by playing the big boys, and that exposure comes through the World Cup and the World Cup alone. We've seen significant progress since 2003, so let's capitalise on it. Thirty-two teams? That really would make rugby union a world game.
Punishments must fit the crime
Some heavy punishments have been dished out by the judicial officers in the first week of competition: five weeks for the American centre Paul Emerick, four matches for the South African flanker Schalk Burger, two matches for Phil Vickery. It seems the organisers are cracking down on offences they deem to have had some malice aforethought about them. I'm not sure that Emerick, who dropped Olly Barkley from on high in a tackle, or Vickery, who tripped the same American player in open field, planned their actions. Kicking someone in the head is a considered act; Vickery seemed to me to have acted instinctively.
I did have an issue with Burger's mid-air hit on the Samoan scrum-half, Junior Polu, however. The Springbok does have a tendency to tackle high. What is the purpose of hitting people high, if not to damage them? We know the answer to that. All things considered, I think a four-game ban was about right.
Australia to win – but not by many
A word about the big game tomorrow: Wales against Australia in Cardiff. By close of play at the Millennium Stadium, we'll have a very strong idea of the make-up of the two quarter-finals scheduled for Marseilles. Might Wales go through as group winners? They will certainly have some belief about them, partly because they are in familiar surroundings and partly because their second-half against the Canadians was a high-quality effort.
However, this is a very good Wallaby team, full of confidence and packed with attacking firepower. Wales are a brilliant side in broken field, but the Australians are so organised they rarely allow such situations to develop.
To my mind, it will be about the first 30 minutes. If Wales can bring to this game the mindset they brought to the Six Nations fixture with England last March, they have it in them to nail a priceless victory. It is a big "if", though. When it comes to World Cups, the Australians are always tuned in. I take them to win, if not by many.
Player to Watch: Mike Catt
Mike is pivotal to England's chances of beating the South Africans tonight. If he performs to his level and does it for 80 minutes, there is no reason why the result should not go the way of the champions. Can he last the full game at 35? He's a fit guy, and he knows his way around an international rugby field, but he'll be tested defensively because the Boks always ask questions with their physicality.
I played and worked alongside Mike a good deal down the years, and my impression is that he has been misrepresented by those who consider him to be a weak defender. He can defend – he's proved it time and again. Mind you, he'll be sorely examined on this occasion and, if he shows any frailty, England will pay the price. I don't believe he will fall off his tackles. As he showed when he led the team against France in the Six Nations, he is still capable of making a high-class contribution on the grand occasion. England badly need such a contribution this evening.Reuse content