Catt sees hope in Lancaster's rapid progress

England have improved faster than in early days under Woodward, says 2003 World Cup veteran

It is perfectly possible – highly likely, many are arguing – that England will be steamrollered by what the red-rose attack coach Mike Catt describes as "the big green machine" at South Africa's newest Test venue this afternoon and spend the rest of the summer contemplating a three-zip beating by the Springboks, one of the teams they must learn to subdue if they are to have any hope of making a decent fist of the home World Cup in a little over three years' time. Would this be a disappointing outcome? For sure. A calamity? Not really.

Catt, one of the men who laid hands on the Webb Ellis Trophy in Sydney in 2003, believes that Clive Woodward, the rugby architect who designed and constructed that spectacularly successful England side, would recognise the progress made by current head coach Stuart Lancaster over the last six months or so. "It probably took Clive three years to get to where Stuart is now," the former centre said yesterday. "That's the measure of how good things are at the moment."

Leaving aside the salient fact that Lancaster and his fellow coaches are paid to win international matches – something they have so far failed to do on this trip – it was not difficult to see Catt's point. In the early years of the Woodward era, England suffered some thorough beatings from the Boks, on home soil at Twickenham as well as in the republic. (One of the worst was in Paris during the 1999 World Cup, when Jannie de Beer drop-goaled South Africa to a 44-21 victory at the quarter-final stage). If this 2012 vintage have lost on consecutive Saturdays, they have at least been competitive for an hour of each game.

Born in this very city – he intends to share a coffee tomorrow with his mother before "walking hand-in-hand along the beach" – Catt understands the nature of Springbok rugby and knows that if England fall off the pace for 20 minutes here, as they did in both Durban and Johannesburg, things could turn gruesome.

"There have been spells in both Tests when we've let ourselves down," he acknowledged. "We simply can't allow strong teams to dominate us for blocks of games. But, from our point of view, there's nothing like knowing what it's like to experience the reality of rugby in a country like this one. When he returns home, Stuart will have learnt a hell of a lot about individuals who can and can't operate in an extreme environment."

Big games in the Eastern Cape have a history of extremity: things kicked off here during the England tour of 1994, at the World Cup a year later and again on the last Lions visit in 2009.

Even at full strength up front, the visitors would have found today's contest a severe test of their physical and temperamental resilience. Sadly for them, they are not blessed in this regard. Chris Robshaw, their best player on this trip as well as their leader, is injured, and he was joined on the casualty list yesterday morning when the recalled loose-head prop Alex Corbisiero was ruled out with a recurrence of the knee injury that cost him his front-row place in Durban.

Joe Marler's blooding at Test level has been one of the tour's more positive aspects: the young Harlequins loose-head specialist may not have been entirely comfortable in his set-piece work, particularly in the opening Test a fortnight ago, but his energy and aggression, allied to his high tackle-count in open field, means Lancaster will not have to think either long or hard about including him in his senior squad for the autumn internationals – a squad scheduled to be named early next month. Another step up against the bear-like Jannie du Plessis this afternoon will further cement the England hierarchy's view of the matter.

Yet Corbisiero would have offered added value today. The London Irish front-rower is one of a very rare breed – the "thinking man's prop" – and his craft at close quarters might have posed some interesting questions of the Springbok scrummagers.

"This is a big blow," acknowledged Catt, who worked with Corbisiero before cutting his close ties with the Exiles at the end of the Premiership campaign. "Alex has had limited opportunities on this tour because of injury but he really showed what he's about when he came off the bench in Jo'burg last week. We'll just have to take it on the chin and get on with life."

Much the same can be said in respect of the Robshaw-less loose combination: a freshly minted unit featuring the two-cap freshman Tom Johnson, the 42-cap returnee James Haskell and the new No 8 Thomas Waldrom, who makes his first international start today.

One way or another, they will have their work cut out: the Boks may have lost the supersized blind-side operator Willem Alberts to injury, but Marcell Coetzee has been an eye-catching addition in the breakaway position, while Pierre Spies is playing some of his better rugby in the middle of the back row. Add the abrasive debutant Jacques Potgieter to the mix – the South African strategists really like this bloke – and … well, you get the drift.

If the sharp-end challenge is formidable, so too is the uphill climb facing the centre partnership of Manu Tuilagi and Jonathan Joseph. Last week's match passed Tuilagi by so completely that he barely contributed, while Joseph's loose kick to J P Pietersen late in the second half killed off England's comeback stone dead.

"Games go like that sometimes," said Catt, a midfielder of vast experience. "But as I've told the players: if you can't be man of the match in attack, it doesn't stop you being man of the match in defence."

England will have to defend for their lives at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium just to stay close to opponents who love nothing better than the smell of a whitewash in their nostrils. But while a win would border on the miraculous, a close contest would reinforce the legitimacy of the Lancaster Project.