You wait two long years for a Rugby World Cup final rematch and along comes some significant off-field squabbling to rather overshadow what could be a grand occasion. Saturday will see England and South Africa meet for the first time since Yokohama, but in a week that saw sanctions finally levied against Rassie Erasmus, this sorry, scurrilous, long-lasting scandal has all rather distracted from the rugby once more.
After a seemingly interminable delay and off-stage argument, the independent misconduct committee has reported back. Ever since the emergence of Erasmus’s hour-long critique of the officials after the first British and Irish Lions Test, the sport waited to see what punishment the South African director of rugby will face from World Rugby for his crossing of the line.
The timing, over which World Rugby say they had no control, is less than ideal with one game to go for each team this autumn, but down came the verdict and out again poured the malodours and ill-feeling that have lingered since late July.
Released on Wednesday evening was an 80-page report that showed eight charges upheld – six against Erasmus, two against SA Rugby – and saw the 49-year-old banned from all matchdays until the end of September next year and unable to participate in any rugby activity for the next two months, pending an appeal. Wanted: water-carrier/director of rugby in the Twickenham area, available on Saturday afternoon.
The Erasmus affair provides a rather unpleasant backdrop to a titanic game needing little extra spice or subtext: England and South Africa are ranked third and first in the world, each unbeaten in this Autumn Nation Series and meeting for the first time since the Springboks’ uplifting win in Japan 24 months ago.
Eddie Jones’s side are not hell-bent on revenge with swords drawn like Inigo Montoya as they confront their World Cup final slayers, but the echoes of Yokohama remain in the mind for those present on that day in English white, including their head coach.
“The 2019 World Cup is not a significant memory that I have, but that is not to say that I don’t wake up in the morning and think about it,” Jones said. “It is a scar that you have for the rest of your life.
“We don’t get the World Cup back. They have got a different team, we have got a different team, these are different circumstances. This game is about this game against this South African team.”
It is testament to this South African squad’s depth and ability that they arrive at Twickenham with every chance of winning even without a number of stars. For England’s key absent trio of Jamie George, Owen Farrell and Ellis Genge, read Pieter-Steph du Toit, Cheslin Kolbe and Faf de Klerk for the Springboks. Handre Pollard returns to the starting side and is paired with Montpellier half-back partner Cobus Reinach.
The indications are that England may continue to play with their structure in the backline, Joe Marchant adding further fluidity on the wing with Manu Tuilagi back in the centres. Much as losing a combative character and trusted leader like Farrell, who required surgery on his ankle, may weaken England on paper, it does provide a certain clarity and balance to a midfield that should be able to pierce this fierce South African blitz defence. Skilful fly-halves (Finn Russell, Richie Mo’unga, Danny Cipriani, Quade Cooper) able to vary their game have tended to challenge Jacques Nienaber’s unit most and Marcus Smith is cut from similar satin.
It will be up front that the game is most likely decided. The scrum and lineout shape as crucial battles in a game in which kicking and aerial affray may also predominate. South Africa, with perhaps their three finest front row forwards held in reserve, will be confident that they can dismantle a more callow England front eight at the set-piece.
Bevan Rodd impressed against Australia last week but faces a far sterner test against this disquieting South African pack. The loosehead is alongside Jamie Blamire, whose try-scoring exploits have caught the eye but has looked a little shaky at the set-piece. This will be a major challenge for a hooker making a fifth ever start at senior level and backed up by a potential debutant in Leicester’s Nic Dolly, who was playing Championship Rugby with Coventry earlier this year.
Courtney Lawes, seemingly getting even better 12 years after his debut, captains England and will have a key role to play, as will the steadying Joe Marler, who left isolation on Thursday night and could counter the threat of the South African bench “Bomb Squad” in the second half.
“They implied our forward pack is weak. Our forward pack is not weak and we will have the opportunity on Saturday to show that,” said Jones, who separately refused to comment specifically on the Erasmus verdict. “The whole team is up for the fight.
“I have never seen a team as ready for a match against South Africa as this team. We know exactly how we want to play, we know exactly where we think there is a weakness with South Africa and now we just have to go out there and execute.
“When you are young you have got that spirit of adventure, and that is what I see in this team. We know what South Africa will bring. We know the physicality. We know the Rassie story will help them. It suits them perfectly, but we are going to write our own story. We hope our story will be a bit better than their story.”
It would indeed be quite the diegesis for this “new” England to sign off the autumn with a win. An outstanding side is challenge enough but, with horns sharpened, England may find that hell hath no fury like these scorned Springboks.
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