England cautious as Krige and Co come in search of salvation

South Africans on the rebound pose a formidable physical challenge capable of grounding Woodward's high-flyers

The World Cup holders of Australia? Dealt with. The Tri-Nations champions of New Zealand? Ditto. Now for the South Africans, who are champions of very little and have not beaten England home or away since the controversial Test at Pretoria's Loftus Versfeld stadium 29 months ago.

"This is a colossal match, with both teams under pressure," insisted Clive Woodward, the red rose manager, yesterday. Given the choice, Woodward would far rather be under his type of pressure than the variety weighing down his opposite number, Rudolf Straeuli.

When it comes to rugby union, South Africa always expects. The difference today is that the sporting hard-heads back home, from former Springbok luminaries like Danie Gerber and Hempies du Toit to Joe van Average in his Bloemfontein bar, expect the tourists to finish a very poor second: poorer even than last year, when Bob Skinstad's men shipped 29 points and disappeared down the tubes of a record 20-point margin of defeat. For the first time in living memory, maybe the first time ever, the Boks are widely considered to be on a hiding to nothing on European soil. If those considerations prove accurate, Straeuli may quickly find himself in P45 country.

On the face of it, there are precious few reasons for any semblance of Springbok cheerfulness. They finished bottom of the 2002 Tri-Nations – but for Werner Greeff's late intervention in Johannesburg, when he converted his own injury-time try to repulse the Wallabies, they would have lost four from four – while, in the Super 12 provincial tournament, the bottom three places were filled by South African franchises. The fourth of those franchises, the Cape Town-based Stormers, reached the giddy heights of seventh, still below the halfway cut and a million miles from a knock-out place.

If the likes of Greeff, Brent Russell, Marius Joubert and Andre Pretorius played some hot rugby in defeat during those months of torment, they have been as cold as charity during this tour. A record defeat in Marseilles, followed – horror of horrors – by a thumping of unprecedented proportions at Murrayfield has been further compounded by injuries to a quartet of potential first-choicers for this afternoon's final fixture: Joubert, Jean de Villiers, Neil de Kock and Lawrence Sephaka. Even the weather has turned against the visitors. Rain and mud puts the onus on the tight five, and the Boks do not possess a tight anything.

Yet the England coaches are cautious, and with good reason. Straeuli's team may be under-baked in important areas, not least at prop, but the likes of Corne Krige, James Dalton, Robbie Fleck and Butch James, who enjoys a legitimate tackle and positively loves an illegitimate one, have a touch of the warrior's soul about them. The corresponding match two years ago was a brute of a contest, all blood and gore and stitches, and, while the tourists are far more vulnerable now than they were then, they can still be expected to scrap for the honour of the shirt they wear.

"South Africa are consistently the most physical side we meet," confirmed Andy Robinson, whose job it is to prime the English forwards. "We know they will come route one at us, because that is what they always do, irrespective of personnel. For someone like Lewis Moody [the energetic young Leicester flanker who has repeatedly caught the eye over the last fortnight] this match poses a different test to anything he has yet experienced. He will have less time to think, less time to make decisions. I have never seen him shirk the physical aspect of the game, which, under the circumstances, is just as well."

Moody will do himself a whole lot of good if he prospers against Krige, a crafty sort who will find ways to cramp the Englishman's style. Likewise, Steve Thompson, the Northampton hooker, can expect a warmish welcome from the piratical Dalton; Phil Christophers, the newcomer on England's left wing, will have his wits stretched this way and that by the wonderfully gifted Breyton Paulse; Will Greenwood will need to be at his most resilient to survive the attentions of James and Fleck, neither of whom are particularly well read in rugby jurisprudence.

It is a big game for Jason Robinson, who needs to convince a growing band of sceptics that his rugby league-style individualism is suited to the full-back position, and for Mike Tindall, whose admirable defensive qualities are not generally held in the same regard as Greenwood's attacking ones. But, more than anything, it is a big game for South African rugby. There is a lot of hurt sloshing around the Springbok camp right now, and only a victory will deaden the pain.