England can be hurt if Springboks combine self-control and aggression

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The Independent Online

Rugby World Cup has lift off! After a turgid opening match between Australia and Argentina, a shocking game I thought, which demonstrated the Wallabies have the talent but not the game plan to exploit it, we have a major contest this weekend, England against South Africa. This is just what the tournament needs.

Rugby World Cup has lift off! After a turgid opening match between Australia and Argentina, a shocking game I thought, which demonstrated the Wallabies have the talent but not the game plan to exploit it, we have a major contest this weekend, England against South Africa. This is just what the tournament needs.

The early matches allowed a much needed flush through the system with the main competitors scoring handsome victories of 50 points and upwards. England picked their strongest team first up to make sure they got a good run, so they were ready for the big one.

This match is arguably the biggest of the entire pool stage with the result, if not terminal for the loser, having huge consequences. To the winner, with due respect to the remaining opposition, this effectively means winning the group and an easier route to the final via, probably, Wales in the quarter-final and France in the semis. Coming second would almost certainly mean beating New Zealand and then Australia.

England will go into the game as clear favourites. Their squad has quality and experience in depth, while their rugby is on a high and emanates confidence - a critical factor - following successes across the globe. In this run was their 50-point win over the South Africans at Twickenham last autumn.

Since then, England have continued their winning ways. South Africa, however, have stumbled forward. The social and political issues, to which we should be sensitive, are destabilising to the squad. Also, conflict between coach and players was leaked during the South Africans' unsuccessful Tri-Nations campaign.

Under the coach, Rudi Straeuli, the style of play has reverted to type, based around robust forward play and kicking half-backs. This does not lead easily to try-scoring against strong opposition. Teams in the professional era carry their own organised, powerful athletes. Defences are getting better, with their line across the field moving forward to suffocate attacking play.

England have sought to overcome such tactics by playing the ball early or off-loading out of the tackle. Additionally, they look to score from first phase while the forwards are engaged in the set-piece - remember Mike Tindall's recent tries against Ireland and France. Such initiatives bolster an already highly efficient outfit enhanced by the game-breaking skills of Jason Robinson's running, Will Greenwood's creativity, Ben Cohen's finishing and the ball-carrying of Steve Thompson.

All this with Jonny Wilkinson at the helm to direct play and shoot opponents down with his unique place-kicking ability.

So, no way forward for South Africa? No way. Remember history - the Springboks' intractability and win-against-the-odds attitude will permeate this team when they leave the dressing-room for the fray. It will be tough, but self-control for this South African side will be a must. Yellow cards or, worse still, penalties given to Wilkinson's unerring left foot, would mean self-destruction. The South Africans will be very physical and will try to disrupt England. They attempted to do that at Twickenham last November but went over the top. But South African sides enjoy physical contact; that is traditional Afrikaner rugby. No player understands the core ingredients of that type of game better than the scrum-half, Joost van der Westhuizen, who will be a key performer. I expect him to produce a lot of kicking to help his forwards.

But the South Africans will do well to be aware of the circumstances this time. The hype attached to this game will be considerable. I expect the referee to be very twitchy and on the edge of overreacting to any foul play. Self-control will be crucial, for both sides.

To win, South Africa must seek to stop English momentum, contesting scrum and line-out, while putting pressure on the English half-backs. First-up tackles are a must, and not just by De Wet Barry, the combative midfield player. All of which is designed to keep England on the back foot and without their customary go-forward rhythms.

If the stand-off, Louis Koen, lies too deep to launch his backs, then his kicking for field position and a share of the penalties is his best option. This would leave attacking ball in hand to the lively back row of the captain, Corne Krige, Juan Smith and Joe van Niekerk. Then there is the further option of counter-attacks from turnover ball.

So yes, there is a way for the Boks to win. However, England's stability has allowed them to develop integrated teamwork and a proven and more varied game plan. Their coherence is a major factor in their armour. It is significant that their coach, Clive Woodward, has selected the same team that opened the tournament for this crucial second match. There is much to be said for a settled side.

England should not lose, even accepting that the unplanned can happen on the day.

One final factor should not be overlooked: the impact caused to a team's prospects by injury. New Zealand, for example, cannot afford to lose a player of Tana Umaga's experience and influence. It may be the same for several other sides at this World Cup. But what could also cost the All Blacks their chance is place-kicking. Carlos Spencer was even worse than usual this week. Few teams in the modern game can contemplate success without a consistently successful goalkicker.

Jack Rowell, Bath's Director of Rugby, coached England from 1995-1997.

Interview by Peter Bills

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