Test Match Preview

Third Test

Saturday, June 23

SOUTH AFRICA VS ENGLAND

Venue: Newlands, Cape Town

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

Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)

Assistant referees: Romain Poite (France), Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)

Television match official: Simon McDowell (Ireland)

Weather Forecast:

Newlands Rugby Stadium is not usually considered to be a class-room. It is a wonderful stadium filled with atmosphere and history. The crowd is close to the action, close enough to hear and feel the hits, the collisions, the action. The stadium echoes with the history of epic rugby over the decades.

But Newland’s not a class room.

Yet, this is where South Africa and the world will be heading to learn about the immediate future of Springbok rugby. Not English rugby, mind…..

With the series done and dusted, the trophy belongs to the Springboks, and nothing Eddie Jones and his England team can do will change that. They are not playing to learn anything, the English have to play for their pride.

But Rassie Erasmus and his team of coaches, together with the brains trust that plot and plan the future of Springbok rugby will be looking to learn more about the current crop of players who are listed in the Springbok squad. Erasmus has the luxury of being able to experiment, he can rest some players, he can try a new combination. He has no weight of expectation to deal with at Newlands.

Accordingly, Rassie has rolled the dice. He has deployed some of his second-choices, his reserve troops, as he looks to learn about them and their BMT.

Have no doubt there will be those shrill voices of discontent, those who will yell that it is now time to “hammer” the Poms and score some bragging points. Those that want instant results and demand nothing less than absolute dominance and victory. There are always those that cannot see beyond the half empty glass….

Let’s however, look beyond that for a moment. Let’s look what we have learned from the series, and what there is still to be learned.

Whatever anyone says about this England squad and the fact that it was much weakened by the number of players that were unavailable for selection for this tour, quite simply it is effectively England’s first-choice team, just as much as the Springboks, without Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Coenie Oosthuizen, Pat Lambie, Francois Louw, Warren Whiteley, Marcell Coetzee, and possibly Frans Steyn is South Africa’s first-choice team.

It is about who is available right now.

The teams that contested the first two Tests are the best that the two countries could field on each day. Thus true Test teams! Not some second-choice or invitational selection XV such as that the Springboks sent onto the field in Washington three weeks ago.

Rassie Erasmus’ first task as coach was to produce some credible performances against England. From that narrow point of view: Mission Accomplished. He has exceeded the expectations of many.

From here the tasks rear up like a range if mountains, each one has to be climbed before the next one can be tackled.

The Rugby Championships loom, and then the end-of-year “Silly Season” tour to Europe, another Rugby Championships in 2019, and not too far off in the distance, the 2019 Rugby World Cup looms. Those are daunting tasks for any international coach. More so if you have not been given the time to prepare yourself or your team.

Yet they are merely milestones on the road that Rassie Erasmus has to travel as he tackles the greater task that rests on his shoulders as South Africa’s national coach.

His greater task is to rebuild Springbok rugby.

Rebuild the pride, rebuild the aura, rebuild the mystique.

Establish a common playing style, a recognisable game plan or game plans, playing disciplines and methods. Find, and nurture leaders. Find the players, and find out how to retain their services in the modern world.

Perhaps the most difficult task Rassie Erasmus has to deal with is to satisfy the notoriously demanding South African fans! He has to somehow rebuild the faith and support of the fickle South African public, those who take a loss by the team as a personal insult, a blow to their fragile egos, a devaluation of everything they believe in!  Those who so loudly and publicly abandon the team and swear oaths to the fact that they will never ever watch the Springboks play again! Those that accuse the players and the coaches of crimes beyond imagination. For losing a sporting game!

So far, we have learned that Rassie Erasmus seems to have found a core of players who are up to the challenges presented in the rebuilding of South African rugby. He has found a team that can, and has, won games. The youngsters who reported for duty when Erasmus announced his 2018 squad less than a month ago have responded wonderfully to the challenges of international rugby and representing their country on the biggest stage.

He has found a core of leaders, those steely yet invisible cords that bind the team together.

All this since his Springbok Squad was announced less than a month ago, on the 27th May 2018!

Now he has to build that team into challengers for the Rugby World Cup towards the end of 2019, just over a year hence. Along the way there are some milestones, as I mentioned earlier.

This weekend Rassie Erasmus’ Springboks face England at Newlands.

Safe in the knowledge that he has won the series, Erasmus has decided to experiment a bit. He has chosen to test the depth of his squad. The squad that he has to guide and nurture as he builds towards RWC 2019.

Already there are strident voices questioning why he has made the changes!

Consider Saturday’s game:

England arrived in South Africa as a far more settled and experienced team than that of the Springboks. They had a coach who has held the reins for more than two years, they had a core of players who wore the colours of the British & Irish Lions just a year ago. They had a team. Something South Africa did not have.

Yet, despite all their advantages, England have been decisively and comprehensively outplayed in many different aspects of the game.

This is a team that was supposed to be heading for the winners podium at the 2019 World Cup. They said as much. At least, Eddie Jones said as much.

As Saturday approaches England face an entirely different challenge to the one faced by Erasmus and the Springboks. Their side trails 2-0 and is threatened with the ignominy of a series whitewash at Newlands. They do not have much chance to learn anything from Saturday’s Test. They have to win the game for their tour to retain any relevance in the minds of their supporters.

All the pressure is on England.

England have much to fix. They have been outplayed in almost every department, be it attack, defence, set-piece, the loose ball, the breakdown, the mauls, tactical kicking, catching. And, most critically, discipline.

Rassie Erasmus has the luxury of going to school on Saturday. Eddie Jones could be heading for the Headmaster’s office for a serious talk about his future after Saturday……

Team Talk

Rassie Erasmus has made five changes to his starting XV for the third and final Test against England at Newlands in Cape Town on Saturday.

Erasmus has picked Warrick Gelant at full-back, Jesse Kriel and Andre Esterhuizen in midfield, Elton Jantjies at fly-half and Chiliboy Ralepelle at hooker.

The 37-year-old Schalk Brits is on the replacements bench and is set to make his first Springbok appearance since the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The promising young scrum-half Embrose Papier, who made his Springbok debut off the bench against Wales in Washington, was also named amongst the substitutions.

Beast Mtawarira will again anchor the Bok scrum, this time with Ralepelle doing duty in the two jersey, while Frans Malherbe gets a second successive start following last week’s return to the Bok tight five.

Eddie Jones has made four changes to his starting XV as Danny Cipriani starts his first England game since 2008, replacing George Ford in the line-up for the third Test.

The three other changes are Joe Marler replacing Mako Vunipola in the front row while Chris Robshaw returns at blindside for Brad Shields who is unavailable due to illness. Nathan Hughes replaces Billy Vunipola who has returned home due to injury.

Discussion

As we look at the changes made to the Springbok starting XV and the reserves the one significant fact is that the changes to the pack of forwards have been kept to a minimum. Chiliboy Ralepelle takes over from Bongi Mbonambi in the starting team and Schalk Brits replaces Akker van der Merwe on the bench. The two hookers that played in the first two Tests are given a complete rest.

The rest of the forwards, both starting and replacements, are unchanged.

England have been forced to change their starting forward pack again, with both Vunipolas and Brad Shields out of this week’s game.

There is a certain message in those changes. The South Africans have retained the core of their forward muscle, England have had to make changes, and they are significant changes. Their two chief ball carriers, the Vunipolas are out of action. The England close in game is built around the brothers!

Given that the weather forecast suggests a soggy field and game that will be slower and played amongst the forwards far more than in the first two encounters England may just miss the muscle of the Vunipolas.

The choice of Danny Cipriani as starting 10 for England is not entirely surprising. George Ford has struggled with his form and his accuracy in South Africa. His kicking game has been off target, and it has always been a critical component of England’s overall game plan. Cipriani brings a whole new set of skills, being far more of a ball carrier and runner, with an educated left boot to supplement the boot of Farrell outside him.

Perhaps the one Springbok selection that raises eyebrows is the inclusion of Elton Jantjies as the starting pivot. He is much like Cipriani, an attacking flyhalf, with a preference for the open flowing game. We know that Jantjies on the front foot, with the ball coming to him off a stable platform, is almost unbeatable. We also know that he simply folds under pressure. The bigger the game, the bigger the occasion, the faster the loose-forwards ande scrumhalf chasers, the quicker Jantjies folds.

Perhaps there are some mitigating factors in the selection of Jantjies for this game at Newlands.

Firstly, there is not likely to be too much pressure on the frail psyche of Elton Jantjies. This is a dead-rubber game. It is an experimental Springbok back-line. It is time to have some fun. No pressure Elton!

The England loose trio are also no whippets. Tom Curry is quick enough, but Robshaw and Hughes are veritable carthorses compared to the likes of an Ardie Savea, Sam Cane, or Michael Hooper and the rest of the Super Rugby flanks that bother Elton so much. The physical pressure on Jantjies is likely to somewhat less than he gets in Super Rugby, and he will enjoy that.

Add the fact that Elton will be playing with the scrumhalf that made him a star at the Lions. Faf de Klerk’s pass is a meter or two longer than those who have taken his place at the Lions, with the added benefit of a much quicker pass too. This added space and time gives Elton Jantjies the room he thrives on. He has missed de Klerk since his departure.

Those three factors: No psychological Big Match pressure, no chasing loosies, and more time on the ball afforded by a quicker longer passing scrumhalf might just give Elton Jantjies the time to work some of his magic on Saturday at Newlands.

(I am not holding my breath!)

Erasmus has deployed an entirely new midfield pairing. (Their run together in Washington notwithstanding, the combination is really new and untested.) Andre Esterhuizen is the sort of centre that will clatter into Owen Farrell all afternoon. He is a big, muscular ball carrier and tackler, with all the physical attributes needed to stop England’s biggest backline player. This confrontation will also answer some questions about Esterhuizen’s ability as a link and distributor in the 12 jersey. For his Sharks outfit he has been the tackle-buster but has not always been known for his linking play. Of course he could be the carrying option, with decoy runs and the long skip to 13 as the alternative.

Jesse Kriel is a known factor and should have the wheels on England’s Henry Slade who has not produced anything out of the ordinary on this tour. Kriel’s direct running may just test Slade’s defence somewhat. Kriel’s linespeed will need to be spot on to stop Slade’s distribution of the ball to the likes of Jonny May.

The English experiment with Mike Brown out on the wing is still something of an oddity. He is an accomplished fullback, good under the high ball and good at joining the midfield on attack. He does not seem to have the pace need of a true wing, and his defence in the wide channel has been questionable. He might have scored two tries from the wing, but he does not seem to have the nous of a real wing. He does rotate into the fullback slot quickly and comfortably when Elliot Daly joins the line, evidence of his preference in that role perhaps?

Once again, I feel that this game will be won or lost up front. This is where the Springboks have worn England down in both the first two Tests, grinding away  until they have establish dominance. Once that dominance is there, England are always going to struggle to get back into the game.

It is not just the set-pieces and South Africa’s impressive bench of Kitshoff and Du Toit that causes problems. It is the pace of the forward game.

Even if Newlands is slower than the two high altitude grounds of Johannesburg and Bloemfontein, this does not necessarily equal the playing field between the two packs of forwards. The South Africans are used to pacing themselves through a Super rugby game, while the English are at the end of a very long season, and fatigue becomes an issue.

England play a game based on getting their big-muscle ball carriers to take the ball over the gainline and to smash into the defences, tying them in before releasing the ball out to their wider runners. This game is built on the foundation stones of two enormous ball carriers, Billy and Mako Vunipola, supported by Sinckler and Launchbury in the main, with the likes of Robshaw, George, and perhaps Marler in supporting roles.( Itoje and Curry tend to play the wider roles.) It is a slower paced game than that played in the southern hemisphere.

They like to play the big forwards as first receiver off the scrumhalf. It is a game that South Africans know well, they used to play that game too.

This game works when the opposition are a little light on the tackle. It has not worked against South Africa who have tackled the England carriers back time and again. As someone said after the second Test. “England tackle and stop you, but South Africa tackle you back.” The South African tight forwards have revelled in the task of knocking England ball carriers back, time and again,  meter by meter. And then there is Duane Vermeulen who has been simply monstrous in stopping ball carriers and then forcing them back towards their tryline.

If England cannot dominate the gainline, they struggle to release their backs. Their back division has plenty of ball players, but no real muscle. If they do not get front-foot ball with a bit of space, they struggle to burst through tackles. Owen Farrell is their biggest, and he has to get past Andre Esterhuizen on Saturday.

South Africa tend to play a somewhat contrasting style. They do play the direct game, but using the tight five to bash the ball up, but then they like to take it wider, to loose-forwards running in the mid and wider channels. Duane Vermeulen, Siya Kolisi, and Pieter-Steph du Toit all have the outside game skills to back their physicality in contact. When the game goes wide, England have lacked the forwards with the pace to keep up.

Although South Africa will be without their master game manager, Handré Pollard, and they do not have the playmaking Willie le Roux starting at the back, they have them both waiting on the bench. If Jantjies and Gelant are struggling the seniors can be released.

Which brings me to another interesting subject – Eddie Jones’ training methods.

We are told that Eddie favours training sessions that are short, sharp, and very intense. Massive effort for a short time.

Much like their opening stanza in each of the two Tests that have been played. Short, sharp, focussed, and intense.

And then they seem to run out of gas.

Is that because they prepare for short, sharp, intense, bursts rather than the long haul of an 80-minute Test?

This has happened in two Tests in South Africa, and it happened in the 6-Nations Test against Wales too! Perhaps they will last longer down at sea-level, but there is a distinct impression that the England team cannot last out the full 80-minutes of a Test match at the moment.

How will all this translate onto the field in Cape Town?

Prediction

The more I look at the way England have played in the first two Tests, the more I am convinced that they are running into a fatigue issue as the game progresses. This might be as a result of Eddie Jones’ training methods, but it is more likely simply the symptom of way too much rugby over a much, much too long season. Maybe it is a combination of both?

The fatigue causes clouded thinking, leading to frustration, silly penalties, poor decisions, misplaced aggression, and even unnecessarily niggly tactics.

Add in South Africa’s new found desire to play a fast, running game coupled to a pack of forwards that has owned their opponents for two consecutive weeks and the fatigue factor may just cause England to slip badly in Cape Town.

South Africa, in contrast, are riding on the crest of a new-found wave of confidence, and will be hungry for more success. And success breeds success.

South Africa by at least 12.

The Teams

South Africa: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 S’busiso Nkosi, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 RG Snyman, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Thomas du Toit, 19 Jean-Luc du Preez, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Handré Pollard, 23 Willie le Roux

England: 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Jonny May, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Owen Farrell (c), 11 Mike Brown, 10 Danny Cipriani, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Nathan Hughes, 7 Tom Curry, 6 Chris Robshaw, 5 Maro Itoje, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Joe Marler
Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Jonny Hill, 20 Mark Wilson, 21 Sam Simmonds, 22 Ben Spencer, 23 Denny Solomona