Few who witnessed the decisive sucker-punch try by Ireland's Ronan O'Gara in Dublin last Saturday, scored while the Springbok captain John Smit was engaged in a lengthy conference with his team on the subject of illegal ball-killing, would use the word "streetwise" to describe this South African team.
Few who witnessed the decisive sucker-punch try by Ireland's Ronan O'Gara in Dublin last Saturday, scored while the Springbok captain John Smit was engaged in a lengthy conference with his team on the subject of illegal ball-killing, would use the word "streetwise" to describe this South African team. Naïve? Criminally negligent? Plain dumb? All of those might apply, along with "robbed" or "victimised" - the try was, after all, the result of a scandalous piece of refereeing by Paul Honiss, the oft-criticised official from New Zealand, who ordered Smit to address his team yet permitted O'Gara to play on while that address was in progress.
Andy Robinson went for "streetwise", though. The England head coach, preparing for his first serious challenge as commander-in-chief of the red rose army, considers this Bokke vintage to be far smarter than their recent predecessors - the teams of Harry Viljoen and Rudi Straeuli, who shipped more than 100 points in three meetings with England between November 2001 and October of last year. Robinson believes the tourists learned a hard lesson at Lansdowne Road, and expects them to be at their most astute, as well as their most physical, at Twickenham this weekend.
"Self-control will be a massive part of the game this weekend," Robinson said yesterday following an unusually light training run at the team headquarters in Surrey - wary of the Springboks' uniquely confrontational approach, the England coaches see no earthly point in inflicting contact-based preparation on their charges before this, of all games.
"We must be disciplined at the breakdown and in the areas of physical challenge, because it's bound to get heated. I respect every team we play, and these Boks have a streetwise pack who look after each other. If we don't look after ourselves, we'll get steamrollered."
Robinson made no apologies for promoting Joe Worsley, the 17st 7lbs Wasps flanker, to the starting line-up at the expense of the much lighter Andy Hazell of Gloucester, who at 6ft dead also concedes five inches in height to his rival. A loose trio of Worsley, Lewis Moody and Martin Corry will look the likely Springbok combination of A-J Venter, Schalk Burger and Joe van Niekerk in the eye rather than the navel, hence the one significant change to the side that marmalised Canada four days ago.
However, Hazell enjoyed some big moments on his Test debut against the Canadians - he won the team's defensive award after being credited with 21 tackles - and Robinson must have at least considered sticking by him on the basis that a genuine back-row bloodhound, sniffing possession and snaffling it ahead of bigger, more upright opponents, might have offered England something different. Instead, the world champions will meet power with power, rather than something more subtle.
In a sense, Robinson and company are not entirely sure what to expect from these Boks, armed as they are with a phalanx of natural footballers as well as the traditional route-one bashers up front. England's defensive coach, Phil Larder, described the South Africans as "fairly predictable" - no one ever accused Larder of avoiding the issue - yet, in the next breath, also confessed that Jake White's team have more than a touch of evasive ability about them.
"They don't really compare with Australia and New Zealand as passers of the ball," Larder continued, "but they do have some massive threats. Van Niekerk is one of them; he can ask questions of any defence from the base of the scrum, and I have to say that I was surprised he did that only once against the Irish. So this is a mental thing for us, as much as anything. The Boks remain the most aggressive team we play, and the reason we've beaten them four times on the trot is that we matched, and sometimes bettered, them in their physicality."
Worsley, probably the most eye-catching defensive operator in English rugby, is handsomely equipped to help England win the collision again. But after spending a sporting eternity as one of Sir Clive Woodward's more frustrated fringe players, he now has an opportunity to find his Test bearings as an attacking force - a role largely denied to him down the years, restricted as he was to acting as fill-in for the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill.
"Historically it's been a case of fitting into England's system," Worsley agreed, "while at club level with Wasps, things are at least partially built around what I want. The England thing is necessarily different; you're in an environment where there are 22 very good players, so compromises have to be made. But I hope that this time, you'll see me appearing in places I'd rather be in."
South Africa are likely to make a change on the wing, calling in Jean de Villiers for the injured Ashwin Willemse.Reuse content