How times change. Three weeks ago, England spent the first 25 minutes of their autumn campaign living down to levels of expectation that were located somewhere near the earth's core.
Suddenly, after a gutsy comeback against the All Blacks, a supercharged shellacking of the Wallabies and a follow-up victory over Samoa – only the third time in the two and a half years of Martin Johnson's stewardship that consecutive games have been won – they find themselves besieged by optimists. Talk about boom and bust.
Johnson has always been suspicious of public perception, and yesterday, on the eve of what promises to be a humdinger of a contest with a herd of Springboks fighting both for their own reputations and for the future of Peter de Villiers' coaching regime, he reached for the damp towel. "We're on the right track, but we haven't done anything yet," the manager said. "There's so much rubbish being talked. We weren't as bad as some people tried to make out a few months ago, and we're not as good as some people are trying to make out now."
If the very last part of Johnson's address was accurate, a third straight success this afternoon will leave the Twickenham crowd even less in touch with reality than they have been over the past fortnight. They will recall that at this precise point in the 2003 World Cup cycle, England did for South Africa in London before setting off along the Yellow Brick Road towards a Six Nations' Grand Slam and a laying of hands on the Webb Ellis Trophy. In short, they will see victory as a signifier of immediate riches to come.
And they will be mistaken. England should beat the reigning world champions today, not least because the tourists are missing almost half a team: the wings J P Pietersen and Bryan Habana, the centre Jaque Fourie, the scrum-half Fourie du Preez, the flanker Schalk Burger and the long-serving captain John Smit. What England will not do, unless hell freezes over, is stick 50 points on them, as their forerunners did in 2002. They know it, too.
"There are no comparisons to be made between that side and this one," said Lewis Moody, who played in '02 and plays again today. "Eight years ago, I was part of an England team that had been together for a very long time. This team is young and still evolving. We're in a good place at the moment, but the circumstances are completely different."
On his sixth outing as England captain, the 32-year-old flanker will be expected to set the disciplinary example in the face of Springbok intimidation. Moody is not one of life's natural pacifists – the turning of the other cheek holds as much attraction for him as it held for the manager during his own playing days – but he has experienced enough rugby at international level to understand how little there is to be gained by reacting to the physical punishment routinely dished out by the likes of Bakkies Botha and Bismarck du Plessis.
"It's crucial we keep our cool," the captain said. "Personally speaking, I find it much easier to do that now than I once did. I had issues in the past, letting my temper get the better of me, but I learned that it's no use scuffling and rolling around on the floor, giving opponents their little hugs. Actually, our discipline has been very good recently. There's a lot of nervous energy around the squad, a little angst in the air, but that's the kind of thing I want to see ahead of a game like this. During the game, the important thing is for everyone to keep their focus."
England are some way short of performing at their optimum level, largely because the midfield is sub-standard in comparison to the All Black, Wallaby, French and Irish versions. But leaving aside the New Zealanders, far and away the most proficient side in the world game, the top-tier nations are much of a muchness. According to the few people on the planet who understand how the International Rugby Board rankings work, Johnson's team could end the autumn Tests in second – quite a leap from the eighth place they occupied during the dark days of last year.
Not that Johnson gives the proverbial tinker's about rankings. "South Africa were the best team in the world last year," he said. "Why? Because by doing what they did, they outperformed everyone else. This year, that way of playing isn't the best way of playing. These things go in cycles." There are, for all that, certain fixed points in this ever-changing game, and Springbok aggression is one of them. If England can withstand that today and find a way to win, the manager will need more than a towel to dampen the expectation.
Three Key Clashes
Chris Ashton v Lwazi Mvovo
If Ashton has taken to international rugby like a duck to water, the novice Mvovo has barely been in the pond. Wing is a real area of weakness for the tourists.
Dan Cole v Tendai Mtawarira
The "Serial Killer" against "The Beast"? Charming. Rugby nicknames being what they are, this scrum confrontation has Hammer Horror stamped all over it. Expect blood to be shed.
Courtney Lawes v Bakkies Botha
South Africa's master of the dark arts says the prospect of a set-to gives him "goosebumps", while England's apprentice enforcer "never thinks twice". Ringside seats sold out long ago.Reuse content