In a way, I guess I saw it coming. Last Wednesday night, I spent a little time with some Wallaby players and was struck by their steely resolve ahead of the Test against England.
Even at that point, they were wearing their “game faces”: they were feeling the pain of the hiding they had taken from the French the previous weekend and were massively focused on putting things right, particularly in the scrum and tackle areas. That mindset was the winning factor at Twickenham. It’s amazing what a side can achieve when they’re shoved into a corner.
England now find themselves in a similar position. We should make no bones about the fact that the forwards will be smarting: Graham Rowntree, the coach who runs that side of the operation, will not have been happy with the set-piece and breakdown performances. They were not humiliated up front, but they were out-thought and out-played for a significant part of the contest. I have no doubt they’ll respond against South Africa today. The question is: will they be good enough to get on top of a tough side like the Springboks and stay there for long enough to give the Twickenham crowd the victory they crave?
South Africa will be fired up for this contest. One of the things I came to understand as I helped coach the national team was just how much the opposition wanted to beat the English – speaking as an Australian, I can only think it’s the price you pay for centuries of empire-building and world domination – and the Boks being the Boks, they take serious pride in dishing it out in the direction of the red rose. I’ll be honest here: during my time on the England staff, some players had what amounted to a hang-up about South African physicality, to the extent that on one occasion, I saw a key player putting up his hand to be substituted.
When you go up against the Boks, you find yourself facing big, aggressive blokes who really don’t like you. Playing them is a test of manhood, as much as anything: they come out you with a strong kick-chase, a hard tackling game and a vicious clean-out at the ruck. They also come armed with players who understand how to win tight games. Ruan Pienaar, the versatile back who is currently their first choice at scrum-half, is a case in point. He will be at the heart of their challenge today and if England are to win, they will have to find a way of handling him.
It has been a rough few days for Stuart Lancaster and his team, but human psychology being what it is, I expect them to dig deep this afternoon. A lot has been said about Chris Robshaw – not only about his decision-making as captain against the Wallabies, but also about his role on the open-side flank – and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he reacted better than anyone by turning in a screamer of a performance. He hasn’t done much wrong since taking on the leadership duties at the start of the year and it would be just like him to see this as an opportunity to make a lot of people eat a lot of words.
Last week, I put forward the suggestion that Steffon Armitage, currently playing at the top of his game in Toulon, might be a long-term answer in the No 7 shirt. I stand by that, and I hope the England coaches keep an open mind and don’t box themselves into a corner on the subject. He’s dismissed in some quarters as a fat little bloke who went to France after failing to take his chance at international level. Well, he’s grown up a lot in recent times and deserves a re-evaluation. The kid offers something.
But this is not to say that Robshaw cannot do a top job against the best opposition. Michael Hooper, the Wallaby flanker, was sensational last weekend, but the Boks will do things differently in the back-row department and assuming England have made the right changes, they have the personnel to handle it. I also think the skipper will ask Toby Flood to kick for the goal when the opportunity arises, rather than go for the corner in search of tries. I don’t condemn Robshaw for his ambition last weekend, but having watched the Australia game live, and again on television, I never felt that the Wallabies looked ready to buckle. Hindsight is a luxury denied to people making decisions in the heat of the moment, but I’d have gone for the sticks.
So would Sir Clive Woodward, judging by his comments in the broadcasters’ box. He’s caused quite a fuss, one way or another, but I believe he spoke a good deal sense. It struck me that he’s like a cat on a hot tin roof – that he has the appetite for a return to rugby and that he’s ready to coach again. He certainly has a track record: it’s one thing to be competitive in Europe and quite another to be capable of beating the top southern hemisphere nations on a regular basis. For a couple of years, Clive’s team were the best in the world. There aren’t too many England sides in history who achieved that.
However, we also have to remember that Clive was given five years to put things place in place – granted the time and space to learn the right lessons from the kind of disappointment this England team experienced last weekend. In this day and age, with all the churn and burn involved, can coaches expect the same kind of patience? Now, there’s a question.
Brian Smith is rugby director at London Irish and the former England attack coach. His fee for this article has been donated to Great Ormond Street Hospital