England pack ready to right sorry record
Tourists know set-pieces will be key to recording first win in eight games against South Africa
If England have grown just a little tired of hearing how they have all the advantages ahead of this afternoon's opening Test with the Springboks at Kings Park – more rest, more preparation time, more cohesion – they find their recent record against the two-time world champions much harder to bear. Seven straight defeats stretching back to the autumn of 2006, including four complete and utter humiliations, does not make for happy reading. There are more laughs in a Thomas Hardy novel.
True, there has been the occasional self-deprecating wisecrack in the darkness: "You know you've had a shit game when your wife and mum send you text messages saying they still love you," said the West Country prop Phil Vickery after being scrummaged clean out of this self-same stadium while on Lions duty three years ago. But generally speaking, the prevailing sound from Englishmen tangling with the South Africans has been one of wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Should Stuart Lancaster's tourists fail to make sense of their set-pieces today, they will find themselves wailing and gnashing some more. The good news is that a new-look England front row, featuring the bristlingly aggressive debutant prop Joe Marler alongside a fresh Dylan Hartley and an increasingly authoritative Dan Cole, have a better than even chance of edging the scrums against a Springbok unit who regard mere parity as an affront to their masculinity. Any victory over the South Africans necessarily begins here.
"The scrum is still a massive part of international rugby and we're really looking forward to this contest," said the England forwards coach Graham Rowntree, who can take a serious amount of credit for rebuilding the red-rose reputation in this area. If England's grunt-and-groaners are individually powerful, they are also highly organised and unusually disciplined. Rowntree assumes that penalties will be awarded at the set-piece over the course of a fast and furious Test and has made it his business to ensure they are conceded by the other lot.
By the same yardstick, the Boks suspect they will edge the line-outs, on the basis that their quartet of jumping forwards, led by the athletic young newcomers Eben Etzebeth and Marcell Coetzee, offer more variety than an England pack shorn of the accomplished aerialist Tom Croft, back home in Leicester nursing a bad neck. When all is said and done, the specialist forward operations may end up in stalemate.
So too might the bish-bash confrontation in midfield – if Jean de Villiers and Frans Steyn enjoy a tackle, so too do Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi – and the twinkletoed match-up in the wide open acres, although the Springbok master Bryan Habana looked in strikingly good shape in scoring the winning try for the Stormers against the Bulls in Pretoria last weekend. Which leaves us with the breakdown and the kicking game, both of which have gone the South Africans' way for as long as anyone cares to remember.
Chris Robshaw, the England captain who has spent the entire season in a purple patch, has the ability to take advantage of Heinrich Brüssow's absence. The new Springbok coach, Heyneke Meyer, may have missed a trick in rejecting the high-class breakaway's qualities and will need Morne Steyn and his namesake Frans to dominate proceedings with the boot.
This is where England must fear the Boks, for both Steyns can smack it miles: out of hand, off the tee, in the drop. It will be no great surprise if South Africa win for precisely this reason, but for the first time in many moons, the tourists think they can prevail here. It is required viewing.
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