Wounded England set for back-row battle royal
Red rose look to tough it out against South Africa and beat them for the first time in six years
If England are hurting after last week's six-point defeat by Australia – and judging by the expression on Graham Rowntree's face, they have spent the last few days in an advanced state of excruciation – there is a lot more agony heading their way this afternoon. Win or lose against the Springboks at Twickenham, the discomfort they suffer will be extreme. On occasions like this, rugby is a game to be endured first, and enjoyed second.
It is six years since the last red-rose victory over these opponents and rather longer since the World Cup-winning side of Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Jonny Wilkinson and Will Greenwood squared up to the Boks in the happy knowledge that whatever the nature of the assault inflicted upon them, they would leave the field with a victory to show for their lacerations and abrasions. In recent times, it has been all pain and no gain.
Rowntree, in the midst of one of his more difficult weeks as forwards coach following the red-rose pack's failures at scrum and breakdown against the Wallabies, suggested yesterday that whatever this penultimate game of the autumn series throws at the team, it will not be a challenge of the philosophical variety. "Compared with Australia, the Springbok game is constructed with fewer tools," he said. "But what they do, they do very well. We all know how they're going to play. Dealing with it is a different matter."
Yet the Boks can legitimately claim to have more of a footballing dimension to their back division than England are able to offer. In the scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, the tourists possess one of the finest tacticians in the world game; in the wing J P Pietersen and the outside-half Patrick Lambie, they have players who can "make a difference", to use the current jargon. Matches involving South Africa do not often hang on the creativity differential, but these tourists should be able to play a bit if the mood takes them.
The most likely scenario, however, is that the contest will be decided in the trenches. The weather forecast is dire – "We played well in the sleet during the last Six Nations, so we can cling to that thought overnight," Rowntree said with a wan smile – and as there is something in the Springbok DNA that compels them to seek contact as a first option, it is difficult to see Pienaar and company chucking the ball around for fun. If all 15 Englishmen were to be yellow-carded simultaneously, these tourists would run into the referee.
Rowntree did not say so publicly, but he must feel that whatever questions the South Africans ask in the scrums, they will not be as awkward to answer as those posed by the ever-so-crafty Wallaby props Benn Robinson and Ben Alexander seven days ago. Gurthro Steenkamp and Jannie du Plessis do not do crafty; they do crash-bang-wallop instead. Alex Corbisiero, back in the England front row after injury, and the ever-present Dan Cole expect to be challenged physically, but they do not expect to be confused.
With England's line-out functioning smoothly – they have yet to mess one up this autumn – they can anticipate parity in this most important of disciplines. Which leaves the tackle area and what promises to be a battle royal between two back-row units that have changed significantly since the countries drew 14-all in Port Elizabeth last June.
South Africa still have the Brobdingnagian flanker Willem Alberts in their line-up, but the long-serving No 8 Pierre Spies is at home in the republic nursing an injury while Marcell Coetzee, an impressive freshman five months ago, finds himself on the bench. In their places are Duane Vermeulen, a hard-carrying forward from Nelspruit who broke into the side during the recent Rugby Championship and has twice fronted up to the All Blacks, and the brilliant Francois Louw.
Chris Robshaw, the red-rose captain, acknowledged yesterday that Louw had been of central importance to the Boks since being drafted in from Bath just as the English Premiership campaign was getting under way. The man from Cape Town has played in all three back-row positions at the Recreation Ground, but the Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer sees him as an out-and-out breakaway forward – although not, perhaps, as loose a forward as Michael Hooper, the Australian newcomer who gave Robshaw such a hurry-up last time out.
Until recently, Meyer was reluctant to pick a turnover specialist: he argued that referees across the world were so keen on whistling the groundhogs out of the game, selecting them was more trouble than it was worth. It was Robshaw who forced him into a change of mind by making a thorough nuisance of himself on the floor during the summer Tests in Durban and Johannesburg. If the home skipper finds himself second best for the second week running, he will have only himself to blame.
At least he will have some help. The England back-row looks a more authoritative unit – not to mention a more aggressive one – for the return of Tom Wood on the blind-side flank, and if Ben Morgan has added a meaningful defensive game to his potent attacking one since being dropped after the defeat in Johannesburg, the Springboks will not have a monopoly on size and power. This is an important game for Morgan: should his work on the gainline pass muster this afternoon, the No 8 jersey could be his for a very long time.
"Ben has been very involved around the squad even though he hasn't been playing," Robshaw said of the Gloucester forward. "We've certainly noticed him when he's been running at us in training."
Aided and abetted by two flankers who know what it is to put in a heavy-duty shift against serious opposition, Morgan has the chance to show he is up for the fight. And a fight it will be, legitimate or otherwise. As Andy Robinson, the former England coach, once famously said: "The Boks don't just want to beat you. They want to beat you up as well."
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