November 2018 Test Matches

England vs South Africa

Saturday, November 3

Venue: Twickenham, London
Kick-off: 15:00 GMT; 17:00 SA Time
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Jerome Garces (France), Ben Whitehouse (Wales)
TMO: Olly Hodges (Ireland)

Watching the lead-up to this Test has been a fascinating exercise. In England, the media was initially somewhat iffy about suggesting a winner, although they obviously lean towards their own England team. There has been much debate about the “inexperienced” England squad, even more debate about strange selection decisions by Eddie Jones, injured players, tired players, Eddie’s managerial style, Eddie’s coaching methods, the recruitment of foreigners as assistant coaches, the appointment of Will Carling as a mentor for the players, and what to make of the November Tests.

Eddie Jones has suggested that these November Tests are mere sparring sessions as preparation for next year’s World Cup in Japan.

Some in the media take exception to this, saying that there is a strong correlation between England’s pre-World Cup November form and their World Cup destiny over the years, and that England simply cannot look at these end-of-year Tests as anything other than crucial for their own preparation for next year’s World Cup.

There are those that suggest defeat at home to a Springbok side bereft of several key individuals would be akin to a disaster.

Of course, they immediately soften this by reminding themselves that England too are missing several key players.

Of course, those England players who are missing from the current squad include some serious talent, Lions players no less, but Eddie Jones does have the advantage that the Premiership clubs have released all the players he has called up. He has only injury and disciplinary issues that keep him from picking his best side.

In contrast the Premiership clubs have refused to release any of the South Africans who are playing or contracted in the Premiership, as the Test falls outside World Rugby’s international window. (There are no Premiership matches scheduled for this weekend, so it does seem to be a bit of the dog in the manger attitude, but hey, that is the English way!) Rassie Erasmus has to pick his team with the additional restriction of players who are no allowed to be available!

England are certainly missing some of their key players, the likes of Billy and Mako Vunipola and Joe Launchbury. These are players who have been central to the England game plan as the primary ball carriers around which the rest of the team revolve. Some of the secondary ball carriers, Chris Robshaw and Nathan Hughes are also missing, which compounds the problems somewhat.

Yet they have home advantage against a Springbok outfit that are notoriously poor travellers, at the end of a very long year of rugby, and also missing several key players, the likes of Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux, as well as Francois Louw, Franco Mostert and Vincent Koch.

Any Test match involving Eddie Jones would not be a real Test match if he had not had something derogatory to say about his opponents. This Test is no different. Eddie has already said that the Springboks are “pretty simple to beat” and easy to read. He says that the Springboks are wholly predictable, and “you’ve got to take them on up front and then when you get opportunities to score points you’ve got to score them. They play the traditional Springbok game up front and then move the ball wide when they need to.”

This is Eddie’s way – he tries to get under the skin of his opponents, itching and scratching to distract their thinking, perhaps inviting them to play a high-risk expansive game, taunting them about their predictability. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. I guess it also helps Eddie get himself and his team motivated for a game. It all adds to the needle, the adrenaline, the spice……

I am not sure that Rassie Erasmus will be listening to Eddie Jones…..

From my own perspective, this Test is of interest simply as a gauge of the Springbok team’s progress under Rassie Erasmus. Lest we forget that he was only appointed to the Springbok coaching job a scant 8 months ago, taking over a team that had sunk to depths previously unexplored by any South African team in history. He was handed a raggle-taggle bunch of rookies and a couple of older players all struggling with confidence, short of anything that resembled a game plan or playing style, and bereft of the pride and aura that Springbok teams of the past carried with them wherever they went.

So far he has achieved something akin to a miracle.

The acid Test will be how this team, fatigued after a long long season, short of some of the stars that ignited their game earlier in the year, cope with the pressures of this first Silly Season game.

If they beat England, this could be the beginning of something special.

Selection News:

England:

Eddie Jones has handed a debut start to prop Alec Hepburn as he named his side to play the Springboks at Twickenham on Saturday.

As expected, Dylan Hartley and Owen Farrell are named as co-captains in a starting XV which boasts 413 caps. Farrell reverts to his preferred flyhalf position, with George Ford on the bench as back-up.

Two more debutants are found on the bench where  Zach Mercer and Ben Moon are included as finishers.

George Kruis, Jack Nowell, and Ben Te’o  are included for the first time since last season’s Six Nations.

Manu Tuilagi is named as a replacement having last played for England against Wales in the 2016 Six Nations.

South Africa:

The Springboks have named a back-row of Duane Vermeulen, Siya Kolisi and Warren Whiteley for the Test against England.

Rassie Erasmus announced a side with seven changes to the starting XV which lined up against the All Blacks three weeks ago in Pretoria.

(No European-based players were considered for selection because the match falls outside the international Test window.)

The reshuffled loose trio now consists of Whiteley at eight and Vermeulen at blindside flank, while Kolisi retains his spot on the openside.

Pieter-Steph du Toit, who has played mostly in the seven jersey so far this year, returns to the second row, replacing Franco Mostert who has joined Gloucester and is thus unavailable in terms of the international window.

Whiteley has recovered from the groin injury which ruled him out of the Springboks’ last two Rugby Championships Tests, against the Australia in Port Elizabeth and the All Blacks in Pretoria,

Du Toit is no stranger to the locking partnership with Eben Etzebeth as the two play together for the Stormers and Western Province.

Etzebeth is the most experienced player in the team with 73 Test appearances.

The starting front-row of Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Frans Malherbe continues, with Thomas du Toit included on the bench as a loosehead replacement with Tendai Mtawarira sitting out the tour due to injury.

Lood de Jager has been included amongst the replacements and he is set to make his first Springbok appearance of 2018.

There are three changes to the backline.

Damian Willemse is set to make his starting debut for the Springboks at full-back. Willemse has made three appearances off the bench already and he comes into the starting team in place of Willie le Roux, while Sbu Nkosi returns to right wing in place of Cheslin Kolbe.

Ivan van Zyl, who made his only start against Wales in June in Washington DC and has made three Springbok appearances altogether, gets the nod at scrum-half.

Thoughts:

South Africa often need to find someone to spark them into action. So far this season Faf de Klerk has been the detonator that has ignited his team. This time he is missing from the lineup. So who will be the spark? Who will energise and set the Springbok flame alight?

The return of Duane Vermeulen might well be the catalyst that sparks the Springbks, especially amongst the forwards where his leadership and presence is of immeasurable value. He will add some experience of European conditions too.

A comparison of the two teams suggests that this is a game that will be fought and won up front.

The Springboks are fielding a tight five that compares with any in the world, up against an English combination that is largely untested as a unit. Regulars in the England No.1 jersey, Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler are not available, and are replaced by debutant Alec Hepburn. Dylan Hartley returns after missing the mid-year tour to South Africa, and most of 2018 due to injury. Only Maro Itoje remains of the locks who did duty in South Africa, Both Nick Isiekwe and Joe Launchbury being injured and unavailable.

Eddie Jones has said that his team is “very well organised in our set piece and have done a lot of good work in Portugal over the last week.” Some questions must remain whether the new tight five combination will be effective against a Springbok 5 that have played together all year.

The two sets of loose forwards have both changed since the June Tests.

Tom Curry is the only one of the England back three who featured in all three Tests in South Africa. Brad Shields had a run off the bench in the first Test, and started the second, but was left out of the third Test altogether. Mark Wilson, at 8 for this Test, did not play against South Africa at all in June.

Effectively, there are five changes to the eight forwards that started the final dead-rubber Test for England at Newlands back in June.

The South African loose trio has been completely revamped, with the return of Vermeulen, albeit on the flank, and Warren Whiteley at No.8 both changes to the trio that started the last Test against the All Blacks in Pretoria. Only Sia Kolisi remains in his regular position.

At the back Eddie Jones has made an interesting call, with Ben Te’o starting at inside centre alongside Henry Slade in the midfield. This was something of a surprise selection as many expected Manu Tuilagi to start this Test, bringing his physicality right from the start. Te’o has had just 28 minutes of Challenge Cup rugby in 2018, and it remains to be seen whether he is match-fit for Test match rugby.

The experiment of playing Owen Farrell at 12 as a second game manager appears to have been shelved, although George Ford is on the bench and we may see a reshuffle later in the game. With Farrell calling the shots from the flyhalf position the England backs might be slightly better organised than they were in their June outings in South Africa.

The changes in the England back division include shifting Johnny May from the 14 jersey across to the other side of the park into the 11 jersey, while Elliot Daly, Henry Slade, and Ben Youngs remain in the positions where they featured against South Africa. George Ford will start off the bench, having started both the first two Tests against South Africa, before being left out of the third Test when Jones preferred the now out of favour Danny Cipriani at flyhalf.

The England backs face a South African back division that appears settled in most positions, although missing the experience and star quality of Willie le Roux at 15. Le Roux is replaced by the rising star of Damian Willemse, who has all the potential but is very light on experience. The rest of the backs have all proven themselves capable in 2018, with both wings having great finishing ability and the midfield slowly building into a solid combination.

Handré Pollard is as steady as they come, and can produce stellar moments of brilliance when the moment comes, and has not yet reached his full potential as a flyhalf.

The identifiable weakness in the Springbok backline, perhaps in the entire team, lies at scrumhalf. Ivan van Zyl is a youngster with potential, but is very wet behind the ears in rugby terms. Whether he is up to the sustained pressure of a full Test match is a question that must still be answered.

We are told that John Mitchell has introduced a whole new defence system into the England preparations and game plan, which is likely to be a wholly predictable rush defence to try and cut the South Africans down before they reach the gain line. South Africa are equally likely to use an identical system against the English – their system worked against the All Blacks, and there should be no reason to change the plan against England.

England, and Eddie Jones in particular, have been talking about the expected physical battle up front. They have been preparing for the expected physicality of the visitors, looking for ways to wrest momentum from the Springboks and to then counter with their own attacking options.

This might be something of an issue for the England team who have become used to a physical approach that revolves around a number of big bruising ball carriers. In the Jones era the England game plan has primarily been to play off the 9, using Billy Vunipola and his brother Mako as the primary ball carriers, backed by Joe Launchbury, Kyle Sinckler, Nathan Hughes and Chris Robshaw. Maro Itoje has usually been allowed to play a slightly looser game, ranging wider than the other tight forwards.

Of those big bruising ball carriers, only Kyle Sinckler remains in this week’s team. Dylan Hartley, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, newbie Alec Hepburn, and Brad Shields are likely to be called on to play closer to the action and to take up the role of primary carriers, with just Curry and Wilson being given licence to roam the field.

South Africa have signalled their intentions very clearly, both with the inclusion of Vermeulen on the blindside, and the heavy artillery of Lood de Jager, Thomas du Toit, RG Snyman, and Bongi Mbonambi on the bench. They will be looking to gain dominance and momentum up front.

The clash over the loose ball and in the collisions will be paramount, and the Springboks are fielding two specialist fetchers in Malcolm Marx, Duane Vermeulen, along with Siya Kolisi as their frontline troops in this tactical arena.

The England tight forwards will be tested to the limit by this Springbok outfit. This is truly where this game may well be won and lost. The more settled South African bruisers against a new combination of English bruisers who, on paper, look just a shade light for this task.

The clash of the three quarters may well take the backseat in this Test, although the Springboks do have considerable striking power out wide if the ball gets that far. Whether Damian Willemse can bring the same kind of fluidity to the wide attack that Willie le Roux does so easily remains to be seen, he is more selfish with the ball in hand and likes to try things by himself rather than setting his wings free into space.

England have the considerable talents of Jonny May as counter to the Springbok flyers.

At scrumhalf the English do appear to have the advantage with the experience and nous of Ben Youngs up against the brittle youth of Ivan van Zyl. This might be the pressure point on which the England loosies focus their attentions, seeking to rattle van Zyl into making mistakes.

Of course, the England team do have one huge advantage. They are playing at home, at Twickenham Stadium. 82 000 fans have bought tickets and will be bringing their collective voices to bear on Rassie Erasmus’s collection of youngsters. It will be an acid test for the 2018 Springboks.

Prediction:

England, November, Twickenham Stadium. 15h00 on Saturday afternoon, the weather predicted to be around 12ºC, with the sun peeping out behind the clouds. Some 82 000 fans will surround the field. They will be singing their songs and chanting their support for their England team.

It is as hostile an environment for a visiting team as any in the world.

A daunting prospect for the young South Africans in the green and gold jersey of their country. Many think, believe, they might crack under the pressure. The bookies certainly think so, they have England as the favourites.

Yet, this is a Springbok team that went to the headquarters of New Zealand rugby, and beat the All Blacks in their own backyard! In an equally hostile environment, in front of equally passionate home support.

This is a different Springbok team to the one that last visited Twickenham.

And there is something indefinable in that difference. This is not a team that is hoping to win, to survive, to earn some positive remarks from their critical home media. This is a team focussed on winning!

This is a team with a settled look about the squad. This is a team that knows what it is supposed to do, and knows how to do it. They have been growing and growing with each Test they have played, and they have learned their lessons. This is the next step on their journey.

And that is why I am going against the pundits and the bookies and suggesting that the Springboks will win this Test.

The Springboks, by 15 points or more.

The Teams:

England: 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ben Te’o, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell (co-captain), 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Mark Wilson, 7 Tom Curry, 6 Brad Shields, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Dylan Hartley (co-captain), 1 Alec Hepburn

Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Charlie Ewels, 20 Zach Mercer, 21 Danny Care, 22 George Ford, 23 Manu Tuilagi

South Africa: 15 Damian Willemse, 14 Sbu Nkosi, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Ivan van Zyl, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Duane Vermeulen, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff

Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Lood de Jager, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 André Esterhuizen