Test Match Preview

First Test

SOUTH AFRICA VS ENGLAND

Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg

Local time kick off 17:05, 15:05 GMT, SA Time – 17:05

Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)

Assistant referees: Romain Poite (France), Glen Jackson (New Zealand)

Television match official: Simon McDowell (Ireland)

Weather Prediction:

 

 

South African rugby supporters endured a torrid two years during the Allister Coetzee era. Coetzee was handed the poison chalice that is the Springbok coaching job just two months before the June International season of 2016 was due to kick off. He was given no leeway in the selection of either his support staff nor the players from whom he could select a team. He was given no established group of players on which to found his team, as his predecessor, Heyneke Meyer, had ridden off into the sunset leaving no legacy group of players behind, nor having established a pool of blooded youngsters ready to step into the shoes of his team of departing old men.

To all and sundry it looked as if Allister Coetzee had deliberately been set up to fail.

Of course, he did not help matters much with some seriously flawed selections, a truly weird game plan, and an absolute refusal to acknowledge errors and problems. He abandoned one game plan after another, changed his team more often that he changed his underwear, and played more players out of position than anyone since Dick Muir coached the Sharks.

He led a rookie team so far down the slippery slope to ignominy that many wondered whether the Springbok would ever be able to come back.

This Saturday, the Springboks, under the guidance of Rassie Erasmus, will be looking to make the first steps towards redemption.

There are many, with those who believe in miracles at the forefront, who want to believe that dumping Coetzee and appointing Erasmus will be the all-healing panacea to the Springbok problems.

Have no doubt that, if the Boks fail to beat England at Ellis Park, those self-same miracle believers will plunge straight down into the deepest depths of despair. They will predict doom and gloom of the worst order, some will abandon the Springboks and look for some other team to support, whilst others may well abandon rugby as their favoured sport altogether.

The Doom & Gloomers aside, there are millions of fans who will be hoping for the best, but excepting that it might not be attainable just yet.

It is not going to be easy.

Firing one coach and appointing a new one is not the magic bullet so many wish it would be.

But, the appointment of Rassie Erasmus does suggest that the future is going to be better than the past.

A quick look at the team announced by Erasmus suggests that he has gone with skills and talent, with form and focus, rather than on reputation.

The team also suggest that he wants to see the Springboks playing a different kind of rugby to that we have come to expect from them in the past. He has gone with ball players, the carriers, passers, off-loaders, and runners.

Whist he has had to think about the challenge England presents, Erasmus has acknowledged that a lot of the Springbok planning is focussed on next year’s World Cup.

He has stated publicly that he wants a talented team to play without a fear of failure against England.

We can expect nerves, we can expect rust, this is the first time this team will play together. It will take time for the team to gel, to get to know each other, and to learn each other’s running styles and lines. They have not even had a warm-up against a Barbarians or the like.

They will gel. They will come together, as long as they are given the time and space to do so, and I am not talking about the time and space on the field against England! I am talking about South Africa’s hugely demanding public and the specialist rugby media and their long knives.

Erasmus has given the captaincy to a man many thought should have been given the leadership role a long time ago. Siya Kolisi might not have been in the very best form so far in 2018, nowhere near the kind of form he produced in 2017, but he is still been good enough to be the first choice flanker in 2018. The captain’s armband is likely to be the catalyst that pushes him back to the heights he achieved last year. We can also expect him to prove his worth as a calm, thoughtful skipper.

There will be the political dinosaurs and bitter “whenwe” whiners who will say that he is some kind of “quota” selection and appointment. I dare them to say that to his face! Or anywhere near one of his teammates.

I have no doubt that he is worthy of his selection and his appointment purely on merit.

We can expect a revitalised South Africa to come out with intent. They will want to put immediate pressure on Eddie Jones’ and his team. England are struggling just a little, with administrative disharmony as Eddie Jones has become embroiled in a verbal slanging match with club administrators and benefactors back in England. He has also had to deal with the non-availability of a large number of his first choice players.

Saturday will be the day that the rubber meets the road.

Team Talk:

S’busiso Nkosi, Aphiwe Dyantyi and RG Snyman will make their Springbok debuts on Saturday when South Africa face England in Johannesburg.

The exciting wings and the aggressive, physically imposing young lock were called up in a revamped Springbok team for the clash at Ellis Park.

Saturday’s starting team is, as expected, a completely revamped combination from the side that lost by a narrow margin to Wales last Saturday in Washington, with only Wilco Louw possibly starting again if Trevor Nyakane is not cleared to play.

Nyakane is nursing a rib injury and has been bracketed with Louw. Nyakane is given until Friday when a call on his inclusion will be made.

Experienced full-back Willie le Roux and lively scrum-half Faf de Klerk were included in the starting team, while Duane Vermeulen has been named at eight.

Le Roux and De Klerk last played for the Springboks in 2016, when they were summarily dumped from the Springbok squad by Allister Coetzee without any explanation. Le Roux has had a stellar season for Wasps and returns to the Springbok lineup to provide valuable experience to a new-look back trio with Nkosi and Dyantyi. He brings exciting firepower to the mix!

De Klerk, who had an outstanding season with Sale Sharks, partners Handré Pollard at half-back, while Vermeulen teams up with Jean-Luc du Preez and captain Kolisi in the big fast looking loose forward combination.

The uncapped Snyman has been a steady force for the Bulls this year and he deservedly earns his first Springbok cap as lock partner to the industrious Franco Mostert, while Pieter-Steph du Toit will play off the bench.

Tendai The Beast Mtawarira is now just one Test away from 100 Springbok caps after he was named to start next to Bongi Mbonambi in the front row.

England head coach Eddie Jones has named youngsters Nick Isiekwe and Tom Curry in the starting XV to face South Africa in Johannesburg.

Owen Farrell will captain the side while club-mate Mako Vunipola will run out for his 50th England cap.

Jones has included seven players in the starting XV who were involved in the Premiership final between Saracens and Exeter Chiefs two weekends ago.

Isiekwe will make his first start for England while two uncapped players – Brad Shields and Ben Spencer  – are named among the replacements.

Discussion:

South Africa can expect a double pronged challenge on Saturday.

Eddie Jones favours a game plan built on solid forwards playing conservative rugby, with a kicking strategy that plays for territory supported by focussed kick-chasing. Forcing clearance kicks under pressure gives England the opportunity to set  solid driving lineouts.

Jones also wants an absolutely solid defensive display from his team.

We can expect England to target the inexperienced South African tight five in the set-pieces, and to launch an aerial bombardment on the back three, with all-out attack from their own set piece.

They will look to use their heavy artillery to carry the ball close to the fringes and in the midfield, with the returning Billy, and his brother Mako Vunipola prominent in the carries. They may miss the power of Joe Launchbury, Danny Care, Dylan Hartley, George Kruis and Courtney Lawes

At the back and in broken play England have good attacking shape. They like to use late inside runners close to the ruck, they frequently use multiple pod options in the midfield. They like to use plenty of decoy runners to keep defenders guessing. Of course, running multiple decoys and clever support lines at pace requires extreme precision, and a good defensive system can unlock that attack if precision falters, isolating ball carriers, and dominating in the tackle. Tackle turnovers become a likelihood.

The English may find the 2018 Springboks somewhat better at defending than their predecessors of 2016 and 2017. Under Brendan Venter the Springbok defence seemed to lose shape rather quickly, with the outside channels frequently exposed by outside defenders drifting inwards. In 2018 Jacques Nienaber is in charge, and we are likely to see a Springbok defensive alignment that is more communicative, more focussed, and much more pro-active.

Perhaps the breakdowns are the crux to this Test series.

In the 2018 Six Nations England proved vulnerable at the breakdown as their heavy loose forwards struggled to maintain the pace needed to dominate in each and every collision. Both Scotland and France attacked the English breakdown with some success, and the Irish followed suit.

Springbok vulnerability under the high ball, especially out on the wings became something of a joke in 2016 and 2017. Much like a batsman whose fear of the bouncer has been found out by a fast bowler, the news spreads around the world, and every quickie worth his salt will be testing him when the opportunity arises. So too the South African vulnerability on the wings became legendary and will be tested again. We can expect George Ford, Ben Youngs, and Owen Farrell to be launching an aerial bombardment onto the very green Springbok wingers.

However, both the debutant wingers are likely to run straight back at England if they catch the ball, and then the entire focus changes. Both have the running skills and ability to cut  a defence to pieces.

We can also expect England to put enormous pressure on the South African lineout. They will think that the inexperience of the Springboks will hurt in this set-piece. I am not so sure – Franco Mostert is no greenhorn, and has consistently been one of the best lineout forwards in all of Super Rugby 2018, while RG Snyman is part of a Bulls lineout that has worked very well all year. And then there is always Pieter-Steph du Toit to come on of the set-piece needs shoring up.

Perhaps the best news for South Africa is the return of Faf de Klerk. He has always had a very good passing game off the base of the scrums and rucks. Quick long passes that give his flyhalf just that extra meter or two of room to move in. He also brings some flair and excitement around the fringes. If he had a fault, it was in his sometimes failing to dictate a game, with inadequate focus on game management.

His move to Sale Sharks has changed all that, his game has developed markedly as he dictates the way the Sharks play.

De Klerk will fill one of the more serious holes in South African rugby, but there is a worry about those who back him up.

As I said earlier, I expect the breakdown to provide the make-or-break of this Test. England struggle to impose themselves over the ball, and their loosies are just a half-a-yard slower than some. (Ever wondered why Eddie Jones was so eager to get Brad Shields to convert to Pommyism?)

The English are big, crunching ball carriers, but their mobility is often questioned. If the Springboks can stretch the game away from the likes of Vunipola and Robson, they will do much towards winning the Test, and the series.

Whilst England may talk about their experienced front-five dominating South Africa, there are just a couple of questions that should be asked.

Saracens’ 20-year-old lock Nick Isiekwe will make his first Test start in the absence of Joe Launchbury, and Brad Shields is included on the bench as 2nd-row cover rather than as a backrower. That suggests that England are vulnerable in the second-row.

Mike Brown on the wing is another selection that might be questioned. He struggled out there against the Barbarians! He is a feisty fearless and aggressive fullback, but might be found wanting far out on the wing.

This is an England side that shows a lot of changes from the one that started the last Six Nations Test against Ireland. England will be placing enormous reliance on the shoulders  of the likes of the Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje, Jamie George and new skipper Owen Farrell to supply the leadership and experience that will be needed to beat South Africa.

If we listen to those who have attended some of the Springbok practices, and hear what some of the players have been saying, we can begin to guess that  the Springboks are intent on offering more than just the ‘traditional strengths’ that England coach Eddie Jones is fully expecting his side to face.

We can expect rust, we can expect mistakes, we can expect miscommunication too. This is a new team, under a new coach, playing together for the very first time.

What we want to see is progress. Any progress out of the depths to which Allister Coetzee’s Springboks plummeted in 2016 and 2017 will be welcome.

And if that progress includes a win over England, so much the better.

Prediction:

Ellis Park, at altitude, before a huge partisan crowd, is a daunting prospect for anyone who comes to play there. Eddie Jones might be going a bit far when he calls it the “Spiritual Home of South African Rugby,” but it is certainly a place where the Springboks feel at home.

Couple the home-ground advantage to the altitude and the Springboks desperation to make a fresh start, and this might be a very difficult game for England.

Once the Bok machine starts to work and all the gears are aligned, I am expecting the Springboks to make a statement.

They are better than No 7 in the world, and they will prove in on Saturday  

The Springboks, by 15 points!

The Teams:

South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 S’busiso Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 RG Snyman, 3 Trevor Nyakane/Wilco Louw, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: 16 Akker van der Merwe, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Wilco Louw/Thomas du Toit, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Ivan van Zyl, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Warrick Gelant

England: 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Jonny May, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Owen Farrell (c), 11 Mike Brown, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Tom Curry, 6 Chris Robshaw, 5 Nick Isiekwe, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Brad Shields, 20 Nathan Hughes, 21 Ben Spencer, 22 Piers Francis, 23 Denny Solomona