One of the many sorry characteristics of Martin Johnson’s spell as red-rose manager was a selection policy based not on what England might do to the opposition, but on what he feared the opposition might do to England.
To take the most obvious example, Johnson dropped an in-form Mathew Tait for a Six Nations game in France purely because the Tricolores had picked Mathieu Bastareaud in their midfield – a human tractor who, it was feared, would plough Tait into the Parisian dirt. Mike Tindall, not quite in the same class as an attacking centre, was restored to the line-up – and we all know how the story unfolded from there.
Stuart Lancaster, who succeeded Johnson a little under a year ago, went out of his way yesterday to reject accusations that he had been similarly reactive in making six changes to the starting line-up for this weekend’s meeting with South Africa at Twickenham, but for the first time in his tenure, he has not had the courage of his attacking convictions. He could have stuck with Charlie Sharples, a natural finisher, on the left wing; he could easily have reinstalled the exciting Jonathan Joseph at outside centre; he might have kept faith with the high-tempo Danny Care at scrum-half. In the event, he did none of those things.
The decision to ditch Care for Ben Youngs – “probably the position we thought about the most,” the head coach admitted – has something going for it: when he is on top form, which is some way short of 100 per cent of the time, the Leicester half-back offers a wider range of skills. But by replacing Sharples with a career full-back in Mike Brown, the England coaches have advertised their deep concern over the Springboks’ tactical kicking game. By giving Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi another run in midfield, they have prioritised physicality over creativity.
“You either win in the key areas when you’re playing South Africa or you’re in for a hard afternoon,” Lancaster said, by way of explanation. “If you give them possession and field position, they’re formidable – perhaps the best in the world. You have to stop them on the gainline, or preferably behind the gainline. If you’re talking about the midfield pairing, centres have to defend as well as attack.”
Happily from England’s perspective, the selection up front is just about right: when the Springboks are in town, what happens in the bump-and-bash department counts for an awful lot. A back-row combination armed with the raw aggression of Tom Wood and the footballing ballast of Ben Morgan looks significantly more potent than the lightweight trio exposed by the Wallabies last weekend. Likewise, Alex Corbisiero’s return at loose-head prop will improve the red-rose scrummaging, while Joe Launchbury’s promotion off the bench should maximise energy levels in the engine room.
The 21-year-old Wasps lock , who will make his first start on Saturday, is six months older than his direct opponent in the Springbok pack, the abrasive and occasionally terrifying Eben Etzebeth – a player who has made such an impact on the international game in the space of six months that he is already being lauded as the “new Bakkies Botha”. Did Launchbury seemed worried about this yesterday? Not in the least. “Etzebeth has taken to the Test scene like a storm, but there were a lot of us at Wasps last year who had to play rugby above and beyond our ages and when you find yourself having to grow up so quickly, it stands you in good stead for any challenges you might meet in the future,” he said.
Launchbury knows a thing or two about rugby South African-style. Rejected by Harlequins in his late teens after spending time in their academy, he was recommended to Wasps by the former England prop Will Green – and Wasps duly suggested he spend some time in Port Elizabeth by way of hardening himself up ahead of pre-season training. “The first thing I heard when I got off the plane was: ‘Right, we’re doing line-outs and mauls at 8am tomorrow,” he recalled. “It’s the way they do things over there and I found myself enjoying it. I still love eating biltong to this day.”
According to Lancaster, the newcomer has been close to a place in the run-on side for a while. “As a coach, you gain confidence in a player through putting him in pressurised situations in training,” he said. “That’s where I am with Joe. He’s a big man, a very impressive character and when we go through our preparation during the week, he’s virtually error-free. Etzebeth is an outstanding player, no doubt about it: I remember thinking that when watching him throw people around at an Under-20s World Cup. But equally, we’ve all seen Joe’s contribution off the bench in the last couple of matches. There is no reason why he shouldn’t be an England player for a long time.”
If Morgan emerges from the Springbok fires without being burnt to a crisp, he too will have a future. “Ben’s weight of tackle has improved, as it had to do after the summer,” said Lancaster, who dropped the No 8 after the Test against the South Africans in Johannesburg last June. Yet it is difficult to see England prevailing through a solid defence and nothing else. Morgan can play winning rugby with ball in hand off the back of the scrum … but can enough of those behind the scrum do likewise?
England team to face South Africa:
A Goode (Saracens); C Ashton (Saracens), M Tuilagi (Leicester), B Barritt (Saracens), M Brown (Harlequins); T Flood (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester); A Corbisiero (London Irish), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), G Parling (Leicester), T Wood (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Morgan (Gloucester).
Replacements: D Paice (London Irish), D Wilson (Bath), M Vunipola (Saracens), M Botha (Saracens), J Haskell (Wasps), D Care (Harlequins), O Farrell (Saracens), J Joseph (London Irish).
Saturday TV Sky Sports 1, HD
Ref N Owens (Wal)