England face tall order to storm the Boks' stronghold
Tourists must master their kicking game if they are to level the series at Ellis Park today
"You have to be turned on by the fear of playing at places like Ellis Park," said Graham Rowntree, the cauliflower-eared England forwards coach, as he read the runes ahead of this afternoon's meeting with the Springboks – a must-win match for the tourists if they are to keep this three-Test series alive. Rowntree's charges will either be turned on, or turned to stone. The Boks have lost only five matches here in 40 years.
According to the tacticians among the England back-room staff, last weekend's defeat in Durban was primarily down to a failure of "exit strategy": in layman's language, the inability of the movers and shakers, principally Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell at half-back, to find ways out of their own 22 when the Boks were running molten hot after half-time. Farrell, one of the head coach Stuart Lancaster's ever-presents over the last six months, has paid for that failure with his place in the starting line-up. Youngs remains, but could well come under heavy pressure from a rejuvenated Danny Care before this trip is over.
Whether Lancaster has improved England's chances on the exit front by moving Manu Tuilagi, a non-kicker and occasional passer at best, to the ever-troublesome inside centre position is a moot point. If the Springboks have penetrating tactical kickers all over their back division – Morne Steyn, Frans Steyn and Pat Lambie, with Ruan Pienaar on the bench – the visitors are nowhere near as blessed. And if England fail to match the Boks when it comes to putting boot to ball, there will be no escape from anywhere.
"We played into the Boks' hands last week," acknowledged Chris Robshaw, the captain, at his eve-of-match address. "We lost some composure after the interval and that allowed the South Africans to build momentum. When that happens, especially against a side as powerful as them, you risk being run into the ground. It's important that we keep some composure this time."
England will not be able to turn to the rugged, hard-tackling Northampton back-rower Phil Dowson if they find themselves in extremis during the latter stages of the game. Dowson, a first-choice Six Nations pick for Lancaster until the more dynamic Ben Morgan changed the coach's thinking midway through the tournament, was forced to withdraw from the bench yesterday after suffering hamstring problems in training. The uncapped Leicester No 8 Thomas Waldrom, a significantly greater force in attack than he is in defence, fills the vacancy.
Rowntree said yesterday that Waldrom "deserved his chance after the way he has trained" but saved his finer words for the new outside centre Jonathan Joseph, who will make his first international start after catching the eye with a debut appearance off the bench in Durban.
"I'm really excited by his selection," the coach commented. "It's a sign of where we are now. We're not hesitant when it comes to selection. We're happy putting fresh people in if we think they're good enough."
Joseph is certain to have his hands full: his opposite number, the Springbok captain Jean de Villiers, may be more comfortable at inside centre than in his current No 13 role, but he is a high-quality midfielder whatever the number on his back. His Super 15 performance on the road for the Cape Town-based Stormers against the Bulls of Pretoria a couple of weeks ago was nothing short of exceptional and he followed up with a try-scoring performance in the first Test. By close of play this evening, Joseph will know all about the realities of rugby at this exalted level.
So too will Lancaster, who is as new to coaching international union in this part of the world as most of his side are to playing it. The Boks may be blooding one or two interesting youngsters of their own in this series – the lock Eben Etzebeth, the flanker Marcell Coetzee – but they bring well over twice the number of caps, and therefore twice the experience, to today's party. And they are in their favourite citadel, too. If England find a way of winning this game and head for the final match in Port Elizabeth all square, it will be quite something.
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