England have been in "one thing after another" mode for months now, so Andy Robinson and his beleaguered coaching team might have anticipated the setback they received yesterday when Iain Balshaw withdrew from Saturday's meeting with a beefed-up South Africa at Twickenham. The Gloucester full-back strained a calf muscle while warming up for a training run, and after he had cooled back down again - it didn't take him long - the medical staff decided his chances of recovering in time for kick-off were no better than zero. As a result, Josh Lewsey shifts position, with Ben Cohen filling the vacancy on the wing.
As Balshaw was among a tiny minority of players to emerge in credit from last weekend's profoundly dispiriting defeat by Argentina, it was hardly the news England wanted to hear. Nevertheless, a chorus of optimism could be heard at Bisham Abbey as the strategists and tacticians continued their plotting for what has become the most significant red-rose contest since the World Cup final in Sydney three years ago. The pressure may be building on the coaches, but the nerves are holding firm. There will be no abandonment of the current bold-as-brass approach, even if things have been recalibrated just a little.
"It isn't a case of us playing too much rugby, but the wrong sort of rugby at particular times during a game," said Brian Ashton, the principal architect of an attacking plan that may have empowered the forwards just a little bit too much. "Look, there are any number of ways to play - eight-man rugby, nine-man rugby, 10-man rugby, 15-man rugby. What it comes down to, purely and simply, is decision-making on the field, based on an understanding of the game. I agree there is a danger, when you're trying to open up the minds of your players, of going too far and too quickly in one direction, of the balance tipping. There is, though, an appreciation that we need a strong forward foundation, particularly against a Springbok side who love the confrontational battle. We know we'll need to love it even more than they do."
This must have been music to the ears of Charlie Hodgson, whose trials and tribulations during both the New Zealand and Argentina defeats had more than a little to do with the pack's failure to put him on the front foot. The Sale outside-half was a picture of serenity yesterday - "last weekend's performance is gone; I put it out of my mind straight away," he said - although there were signs of naked aggression during training. "He gave the forwards a bit of a rollicking out there, which was something I hadn't seen before," said Mike Ford, the defence coach.
"I'm not one for screaming and shouting, but there are times when things need to be said," Hodgson said. "Despite the last two defeats, there is still the confidence to try things, to have a real go at the opposition. But we have to understand that while there are moments when it's right to force things, there are also moments when it's not right at all."
That understanding will be particularly important this weekend, when Hodgson finds himself up against Butch James, the head-hunting outside-half from Natal. "It will be a case of looking out for him and stepping out of the way as quickly as possible," he said with a smile.
The Springboks, never backwards in coming forwards on the physicality front, look far better equipped for a rough and tumble this weekend than they did in Dublin five days ago. Another Durban-based player, B J Botha, will start in the front row alongside C J Van der Linde and John Smit; the unusually tall Johann Muller joins Johan Ackermann in the engine room; and Jacques Cronje comes in at No 8, with Danie Rossouw and the highly impressive Pierre Spies on the flanks.
Not that all was sweetness and light in the tourists' camp. The Pretoria-based Blue Bulls provincial union chose yesterday to table a motion of no confidence in the Springbok coach, Jake White, citing the record 32-15 defeat in Ireland as the final straw.
And Robinson thinks that he has problems.
How South Africa line up on Saturday
The South African team to face England at Twickenham on Saturday (KO 2.30pm):
F Steyn; A Ndungane, W Olivier, J de Villiers, B Habana; B James, R Januarie; C J van der Linde, J Smit (capt), B J Botha, J Ackermann,J Muller, P Spies, D Rossouw, J Cronje.
Replacements: C Ralepelle, D Carstens, A van den Berg, H Lobberts, R Pienaar, A Pretorius, B Fortuin.Reuse content