The South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer was asked on Tuesday whether he concurred with Sir Clive Woodward's recent jibe that England – the opposition at Twickenham on Saturday in the Springboks' 12th and final Test of the calendar year – needed toughening up. "As a South African, looking back, I never thought they were so tough," Meyer began, causing his listeners' ears to prick up during the announcement of an unchanged Bok XV with one caveat surrounding the wing JP Pietersen. "Then I came to Leicester and was impressed with their physicality. Lewis Moody and Martin Corry changed my perception. They were two of the toughest players I've ever coached."
By mentioning Moody and Corry – two former Leicester and England forwards and captains with whom he worked during his six months in charge at Welford Road in 2009 – Meyer was not so indiscreet as to dismiss the current England pack. "I know England will put their bodies on the line for their country, and I have a lot of respect for their scrummaging power," he said. "Dan Cole is close to being the best tighthead in the world." Only when it came to Tom Youngs, the tyro England hooker who at Meyer's suggestion three years ago made the radical switch from being a centre, did the Bok coach stray anywhere near damning with faint praise. "I had high expectations of him," said Meyer, "but I wasn't sure he could get his mind around it. He was an unbelievable call carrier as a [number] 12 or 13. He's tough character, a farm boy, from a whole family of rugby people. I'm very proud of what he has achieved."
If it all sounds like a jolly reunion in the making – Meyer left Leicester apparently amicably for family reasons with two-and-a-half years of his contract remaining – the scent of battle will soon change that. Commentary on South Africa's 21-10 victory over Scotland at Murrayfield last Saturday was peppered with words like "physical" and "bullying". Certain England players may still wake up in cold sweats remembering the first quarter of the pivotal second Test in Johannesburg last summer when the Boks bulldozed their way to a 19-point lead in winning the series 2-0 with a drawn third Test. Further back, 10 years ago tomorrow in fact, an under-strength and over-aggressive South Africa suffered their heaviest ever Test defeat, 53-3 to the England of Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson et al, at Twickenham.
Meyer spent most of Tuesday evening at a Heathrow hotel assisting the successful disciplinary defence of Eben Etzebeth, the second row forward cited for making contact with the eye or eye area of Scotland's fly-half Greig Laidlaw. Replays showed Etzebeth's huge right palm fleetingly gripping his much smaller opponent round the nose and mouth; all things considered, it was a waste of four hours Meyer could have spent watching match videos or enjoying the view from the balcony at his team's Kensington hotel where England's Bobby Moore waved the Jules Rimet Trophy after the World Cup final in 1966. Still the South Africans have history with this sort of thing – gouging, that is (think Schalk Burger and the Lions in 2009), not winning football World Cups, though they have achieved that twice in rugby in 1995 and 2007. They did not moan about the case or the part played in it by an English citing officer, Alan Mansell. "The guy was just doing his job," Meyer said of Mansell. "It's a fair system and we were happy with the outcome."
Happy indeed to have the 21-year-old Capetonian, Etzebeth, available to lock a Springbok scrum featuring the Murrayfield double try-scorer Adriaan Strauss but lacking the injured prop CJ van der Linde, who was on the bench in Edinburgh, and two other big-name, big-boned absentees in Tendai "Beast" Mtawarira, who is back home recovering from minor heart surgery, and the hooker Bismarck du Plessis who did not tour in the first place. Ditto three other men well-known to Twickenham aficionados: Pierre Spies, Frans Steyn and Bryan Habana. A fresher face is Pat Lambie at fly-half and Meyer has asked the some-time full-back to play more naturally against England, which means much less deep than against the Scots or in the previous week's 16-12 win over Ireland in Dublin.
"Eben's close to being one of the best locks in the world, especially at No 4," said Meyer. "He's really grown as an individual and is one of the enforcers in the team. We've been 100 per cent in the line-out in the last two games and he is starting to put pressure on the opposition. And his weight advantage [at 18 stones 6lbs] is a big benefit in the scrum." There is doubt over Pietersen due to a groin injury – Lwazi Mvovo is standing by – and Meyer admitted: "It's been a long season, and I really want the guys to dig deep, I need one more great performance out of them. They always lift themselves for England but I must say I am worried. The guys are warriors, they will stand up for the country and for the guys next to them. But I can see, training wise, we'll just manage them through this week. Mentally it will take a huge effort."
European conditions militate against quick ball, added Meyer. His openside flanker Francois Louw, who will resume his club career with Bath next week, has been man of the match both times on the trip. "The one area where England were better than us [in June] was on the ground," Meyer said. "The first guy makes a leg tackle, then the second guy is in. We would be crazy to play England without a specialist openside."