David Flatman: It's simple. England must play the Boks at their own game
Dan Cole could well be the key man on the ground, despite being the quietest
Sunday 13 May 2012
Having played at many of the rugby venues around the world deemed "intimidating", I have come to the conclusion that the whole notion is a bit romantic. Certainly there are grounds at which victory is less likely for a visiting side, but this is invariably down to the quality of the home team and the comfort they find in playing somewhere familiar.
In the domestic game Kingsholm, Welford Road, Ravenhill and Thomond Park are perhaps the most famously hostile environments to visit. Yet most players look forward to these weekends more than any others. I, for one, would class Leicester as my favourite weekend on the fixture list. This is because the stadium is magnificent, the crowd is perfectly partisan and the team are invariably top-class. So the experience stands out.
Buenos Aires was a bit rough, but the supporters decided to spit on us and even launch the odd missile. It was shockingly aggressive, especially so the young boy looking me dead in the eyes before kick-off and using his thumb to symbolise the cutting of his throat.
It was at that point, if my memory is accurate, that Phil Vickery giggled quietly. This giggle not only reintroduced a modicum of perspective, it served to reassure me – a young pup at the time – that the man beside me had seen it all before. Anyway, this stuff just does not happen anymore. As it is for the players, there are too many cameras to be getting away with this sort of behaviour in the green seats. And we are thankful for that. Well, mostly – it made for great memories!
This level of realism does not do much for pre-tour hype but it does focus the mind on what will really make the difference for England this summer: who are the better team?
The Springboks will be difficult to knock over on their own patch. This has always been the case. There is talk in South Africa that too many of their big boys are injured to make them an outfit worthy of the jersey – there is speculation that the legendary Victor Matfield may be asked to come out of international retirement to add experience. Whatever happens, rest assured that Heyneke Meyer, South Africa's coach, will roll out an appropriately gargantuan mob of heavies on 9 June. Besides, I would say the list of crocked soldiers on Stuart Lancaster's desk is equally depressing. So we are all even there.
For me, the key battles are in the midfield and the front five. South African centres are always abrasive and athletic, and Jean de Villiers is no exception; given space, he has sufficient pace to punish defences and the skill to feed the likes of Bryan Habana. Should Jaque Fourie be fully it to partner De Villiers, they will form a combination that few would doubt against an inexperienced English line-up.
But if we have learned one thing this season, it is that Brad Barritt can defend. Not just tackle – he can certainly do that – but read attacks and cut them off with a quite wondrous blend of intelligence and spite.
As for Manu Tuilagi, as long as he lets Barritt decide the approach and listens carefully to his cultured instruction, he will blow attackers to pieces. And Tuilagi remains a real threat to any midfield – no matter how learned – because he is, frankly, a beast who can wreak physical havoc when given the opportunity.
Dan Cole will face "Beast" Mtawarira in perhaps the key battle up front. The Springboks have always relied heavily on their scrummage to provide both valuable forward momentum and psychological advantage. The Beast is strong but Cole, who quietly goes about his business, has shown no signs that he will struggle. A prop for all environments, he could well be England's key man on the ground, despite probably being the quietest.
If England win clean ball at the line-out – with Lee Mears a probable starter at hooker this is likely – and produce rock-solid ball at scrum time, the Boks will have to be creative elsewhere, and this has not always been a strength.
So the mission for England is simple: go to South Africa and play them at their own game. Match their brutishness; do not try to play around it. Many teams have tried to outmuscle the Springboks, and few have succeeded away from home.
But merely matching them blow for blow will be enough to cause significant problems. There is no denying that this young, inexperienced England team are massive underdogs, but they enjoyed that tag in the Six Nations and used it to show real courage and resilience. They will need all of that and more but as we know, you doubt this group at your peril.
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