The England blueprint to upset South Africa and reach Rugby World Cup final

England are underdogs but wiill be out for revenge after final defeat to the Springboks four years ago

Harry Latham-Coyle
in Paris
Saturday 21 October 2023 18:57 BST
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Winning the battle in the skies is a key to victory for England
Winning the battle in the skies is a key to victory for England (Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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England are seeking a dose of revenge on South Africa as they bid for a Rugby World Cup semi-final upset in Paris.

The Springboks beat England in the tournament final four years ago, crushing a side riding a wave of optimism after a brilliant last-four win over New Zealand.

The gap appears to have grown since, with Jacques Nienaber’s team showing all of their champion qualities against France last weekend.

But England have built stable foundations during this tournament and will be hopeful they can cause a shock in the semi-final.

How might they go about doing it? Here are three things they must do to win:

Dominate the air

South Africa have extra attacking layers to their game now but are one of the best sides in the world in the aerial contest, relying on their ability to get after high balls to generate possession and territory.

They showed as much in the France win, bombarding young wing Louis Bielle-Biarrey and targeting space intelligently, pouncing on dropped balls in the lead-up to a couple of their tries.

“That’s obviously been a massive weapon of theirs for years and years now,” explained Owen Farrell. “They’ve progressed it, they go with a lot of contestable kicks, but not just off nine. They go across the field quite a lot now, and they are lethal off turnovers at times, getting the balls on the floor, as we saw last week against France, scoring from a few opportunities off the back of that.”

South Africa are likely to put boot to ball often to test England aerially
South Africa are likely to put boot to ball often to test England aerially (Getty Images)

For England to have a chance on Sunday, they have to defuse the threat of the high bomb. Not only can turnover ball be dangerous, but the strength of South Africa’s scrum is such that a knock-on inside your own half can often lead to a penalty – and either three points or another easy territorial gain.

Having Freddie Steward back patrolling the backfield should be beneficial – the six-foot-five Leicester full-back is an excellent air traffic controller. South Africa may try and avoid kicking to him, but Elliot Daly and Jonny May are underrated operators in that regard, too. How England use Steward in an attacking sense will also be intriguing, with their own kick pressure game a key pillar of Steve Borthwick’s development of the side.

“We’ve done our work and we’ve come up with our plan to negate what we can from them but also looking to be able to attack ourselves,” Farrell continued. “The thing about Freddie is everybody knows how good he is in the air and what a fantastic player he is in general for us, but it’s the want to do it. He has the want to be in those battles, the want to go and get the ball back for his team, the want to defuse what’s coming our way as well. He is one of the best in the world at it.”

Ballast the breakdown

England again face a test of physicality and smarts at ruck time. Unlike Fiji, where Levani Botia was a headline jackaller to mark, the Springboks’ breakdown threat is spread around their side. While they do have traditional scavenging skill, particularly through Deon Fourie and Kwagga Smith (both in the top five in terms of breakdown steals at this World Cup) off the bench, South Africa are experts in counter-rucking, biding their time to pile bodies into the ruck if the opposition leave a frailty.

It could be seen throughout their meeting with France last weekend, when expertly timed drives through the breakdown knocked Antoine Dupont off rhythm.

England have rucked inconsistently at this tournament. Knowing that the South Africans can delay their punch may cause England to leave extra bodies over the ball, ensuring that it is protected but perhaps leaving them short of options in the phases that follow. Expect Maro Itoje and Jamie George to be busy, as well as Ollie Chessum off the bench – the trio all rank in the top 10 for attacking ruck arrivals for the tournament.

This might play into a kick-heavy strategy, with England looking to deny South Africa too many rucks to try and get after. Don’t be surprised if England are happy to play without the ball for long periods.

Beat the blitz

Outside centre Jesse Kriel is among the leaders of South Africa’s blitz defence
Outside centre Jesse Kriel is among the leaders of South Africa’s blitz defence (Getty Images)

The Springboks’ blitz defence has been back to its best in this tournament, shutting down Scotland almost entirely in the opener and similarly tough against Ireland in the pool stages. South Africa have the second best dominant tackle rate (12.5%, trailing only Fiji) in the competition – give them slow balls to get off the line, and a soft carrier to hit, and they will knock back any attack.

The team that has had the most consistent success against South Africa’s defence are New Zealand, particularly when they utilise a varied kicking game. When Richie Mo’unga, Jordie Barrett, Beauden Barrett and Will Jordan all play, the All Blacks can rotate their ball-handler and leave an opponent constantly guessing at where a kick might come from.

England cannot replicate that sort of multi-pronged threat with the boot, but could pose some interesting questions regardless. England lack a natural second distributor but Elliot Daly is capable – expect to see him step in at both first and second receiver.

Steward’s inclusion and England’s general backline versatility come in handy. On a number of occasions during the summer and against Japan, Steward took up intriguing attacking positions, often pushing wider to contest from different perspectives. George Ford’s fine clipped kick set him up for a score in the corner against the Brave Blossoms, Steward leaping, gathering and grounding elegantly.

Freddie Steward’s try against Japan is an example of England varying their kicking game
Freddie Steward’s try against Japan is an example of England varying their kicking game (Getty Images)

While South Africa are a strong team in the air, both of their wings are giving up the best part of a foot to England’s full-back, and the necessity of their edge defender to push up can leave space for a cross-kick. There is also sometimes space for a chip in behind the blitz, with South Africa’s two backfield defenders pushing deeper than some sides to try and prevent big territorial wins via the boot. Steve Borthwick may be slightly disappointed not to have Marcus Smith at his disposal but both Owen Farrell and George Ford, included among the replacements, are smart rugby thinkers.

The other necessity against South Africa’s defence is to win a collision early in the phase count, slowing their line speed. Manu Tuilagi may need a few hard charges up the centre for England to have a hope.

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