England and South Africa are two of rugby’s great powerhouses, yet when the two teams take to the field at Twickenham there will not be a single player in white who has ever beaten the men in gold and green.
That said, there could scarcely have been more close encounters – the most recent, two years ago at Twickenham was settled by a single point, and the game before that was a draw in Port Elizabeth.
South Africa’s captain Jean de Villiers remembers these narrow margins well, and it will be this, not the mere fact of the win, at the forefront of his mind this afternoon.
“What comes through in those tough situations is your instinct,” De Villiers said yesterday. “I’m sure a lot of those [English] guys have won tight games, whether at international level or club level, throughout their careers. The fact it will be a team in green jerseys against them, I don’t know if that will make a big difference.
“From personal experience, a big part of our group never experienced beating the All Blacks and we managed to do that earlier this year.
“It’s the old thing about records – they’re there to be broken. We certainly don’t want them to do that and we’ve got our own goals set out. There’s a lot on the line and it will make for a great game.”
Frustratingly for England, opposition players regularly speak of the enjoyment of playing at Twickenham, the occasion of it all, the crowd singing. No one in rugby hates coming there, and little in the last decade has given the best teams in the world cause to fear it.
“Rugby was born here. South Africans grow up wanting to play against New Zealand, but playing England is not far behind that,” De Villiers added. “It’s a proud rugby nation and it’s one of the most difficult teams to beat at home. That always makes for a big challenge.
“The reason we play professional sport is to challenge yourself against the best.”
The time for analysis of his team’s surprising loss to a near faultless Ireland last week has passed, but it is unlikely the uncharacteristic mistakes that cost the Springboks last week will reappear this time.
“It has been an intense week, not only because of what happened Saturday, but because of who we’re playing tomorrow. That’s more relevant and it’s a big challenge.
“We were a half a second off the pace last week. In all facets of play.
“We dominated territory, we dominated possession, our first phases were really good, but we were off a little bit, and that happens.
“The difficult thing about that is that it’s not a tangible thing that you can change. It is something that comes from within.
“You need all 23 guys to make that mental change, to make that intensity change. That’s been the key focus for us, to change that.
“If we can function well again with our first phases – because the challenge will be different and the challenge will be fierce in that department tomorrow – if we can function well there and still dominate in possession and territory, then I think we’ll tick the right boxes.
“I don’t think the focus changes too much, whoever you play. Whenever we play England, whether it be here or at home, it’s always a massive challenge and a big battle.
“The focus definitely sharpens up during a week like this where we definitely know what we’re in for, and when we’ve had a result like last weekend.”
England, he says, “have evolved the most” of any team in world rugby in the two years since the two nations’ last encounter.
“They’re a different beast now in 2014, new players coming in, still experience within that squad. I think the mix that they have at the moment is good.
“You see a lot of similarities between their team and ours. Again, it comes down to a massive one tomorrow.”Reuse content