Preview: Springboks vs England
Super Rugby makes place for Test matches in the Southern Hemisphere with the Springboks playing host to England in Durban on Saturday.
One would expect to say that after months of being divided into Super Rugby supporters’ camps the country would be united behind the green and gold this weekend, but after yet another chaotic week in the SA rugby jungle this is not necessarily the case.
New South African coach Heyneke Meyer has certainly ruffled some feathers with his first ever Springbok team announced.
With the Stormers heading the South African Conference and setting second on the overall Super Rugby log - and having beating the mighty Bulls at Loftus - fans, specifically in the south of the country, would have expected to see more Stormers players in the team.
Instead, Meyer has largely stuck with the tried and tested and made it abundantly clear that size does matter in his book.
There has been more than a hint of the age-old provincialism rearing its head over the last week and the new coach will need to prove early on that he is on the right track with his current thought process.
It is a fact that 22 talented rugby players have been selected to do duty against England, the questions is whether these 22 will be good enough to dispose of a young, up-and-coming England side.
Whilst questions have been raised in terms of the game plan, team selection and future vision of the South African management team, it seems that England are in no uncertainty as to where they currently are, what they want to achieve in South Africa, what their ultimate long term goal is and how they are going to go about getting there.
After losing a lot of their dignity, their coach and plenty of senior players England have reinvented themselves under new coach Stuart Lancaster.
Lancaster has picked up the pieces after a disgraceful showing in the World Cup and his young charges put in an impressive performance in the Six Nations.
The new-look English side believe in a good mix between attacking football and the use of tight, tactical methods when needed.
Up front they still have the personnel to ensure their attack-minded backs get enough good ball and their loose forwards, whilst being more steady than explosive, usually combine well and know how to get the job done.
The Springboks should meet this approach from the visitors with a Bulls-like blueprint. Expect the big boys to get stuck in and plenty of use of the kick-and-chase until an opportunity arises out wide.
Here are Saturday’s mouth-watering battles:
Back three: Gone are the days that English wingers are there to only tackle and chase high kicks. Chris Ashton is the real deal and the bulky winger will look for work across the park all day long.
Ben Foden has been moved to wing and his pace and stepping is not to be underestimated by the home team. Mike Brown owes his inclusion to his impressive domestic form.
The back three of the Springboks boast plenty of Test match experience in Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen. Pietersen hasn’t plaid much on the wing this season and his form is questionable.
There is no doubting Habana but this is one area where Meyer’s doubters believes that current form should have been rewarded with the likes of Gio Aplon, Lwazi Mvovo and Bjorn Basson all knocking on the door.
Zane Kirchner will be keen to grab another shot at Test rugby with both hands. If not the most rounded fullback, Kirchner plays his heart out and always gives his all - whether chasing high kicks or trying to conjure up a counter attack from the back.
England could hold the greater attacking threat whilst the home team has the experience and defensive capabilities as advantage.
Midfield: The English backline has an exciting look to it with Bradley Barritt returning to his old home ground alongside the exciting Manu Tuilagi.
This centre combination is sure to test the defensive capabilities of Frans Steyn and Jean de Villiers. The South African pair has plenty of size and experience but in terms of attacking combination the visitors could have the edge here.
Halfbacks: The battle of the halfbacks is always important in test match rugby. Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell will have to be at their very best to get one over the settled Bulls combination of Francois Hougaard and Morne Steyn.
Hougaard should come out firing trying to show his coach that there was no need to run to Fourie du Preez for help whilst Steyn has proven his worth for the Boks time and again.
Steyn has been a bit patchy thus far this season and when he has an off day his side feel the effects in a big way. He needs to be at his tactical best on Saturday.
Youngs and Farrell will be keen to get one over their highly rated opponents. Farrell has a good balance between the tactical and expansive approach and he will look to show Lancaster that he should be cemented in as the first-choice number ten for the long run.
Back row: Marcell Coetzee makes his debut on the flank alongside his provincial teammate, the big Willem Alberts. England match South African with a debutant in the form of Tom Johnson on the flank along with captain Chris Robshaw.
Which debutant will look back on their first match fondly and can Robshaw overshadow the hard-running Alberts?
Pierre Spies has yet to really find his very best form this season and there could be no better time than a Test against England.
Ben Morgan is a big Englishman who seeks to do the same job as Spies - getting his team on the front foot with strong ball carries.
The Springbok back row should hold the edge over the Europeans but Spies and Alberts will have to shift their game up a gear and Coetzee must show he can adapt to Test rugby.
Tight five: The South Africans are known for their strong forward play and they should have the edge here. Should England be able to edge the battle in the pack, it will go a long way in securing them an upset win.
In the middle of the scrum the Springboks call on two debutants in the form of Eben Etzebeth and Juandre Kruger.
They are two big boys who will be hungry to transform their Super Rugby form into Test level dominance. Mouritz Botha and Geoff Palling will have their hands full.
Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis and Jannie du Plessis are a well-oiled unit come scrum time. They will be licking their lips to give Harlequins prop Joe Marler a warm welcome to Test rugby in his first international match.
Marler’s front row partners Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole are, however, tried and tested campaigners who know their way around the tight stuff.
Last Meeting: South Africa 21-11 England (London).
Prediction: After all is said and done this promises to be a cracking Test match against two teams who seem to be fairly evenly matched on paper.
Of course South Africans will feel slightly aggrieved at not being overwhelming favourites on their home turf, but given the short time the Springboks had to unite as a team and the fact that England have had a Six Nations tournament since the World Cup whilst this will be the home team’s first outing since then, one can understand why there are those who feel England have a very real chance of picking up a rare win on South African soil.
It is strange to think that one expects the Springboks to make liberal use of a tactical kicking game whilst the English might carry the ball more in order to play to their strengths.
For the hosts, the forwards will need to provide the grunt up front, Steyn will have to kick the goals and play field position whilst the backs will need to defend well and capitalise on the odd chance they may get once the game opens up.
England will also put boot to ball but Farrell, Barritt, et al will look to get the ball wide to their danger men as soon as there is the slightest of opportunities to do so.
Ultimately, Meyer picked a team to beat England and his charges should do so. Whether a win will silence all his critics remains to be seen, but the Bok forwards should lay the platform for a team who will refuse to go down against the arch enemies England in front of a South African crowd. South Africa to win by six points.
Saturday 9 June: South Africa vs. England, Durban (17:00)
South Africa: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jean de Villiers (captain), 12 Frans Steyn, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Juandré Kruger, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Coenie Oosthuizen, 18 Flip van der Merwe, 19 Keegan Daniel, 20 Ruan Pienaar, 21 Pat Lambie, 22 Wynand Olivier.
England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Manu Tuilagi, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Ben Foden, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Chris Robshaw (captain), 6 Tom Johnson, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Mouritz Botha, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Lee Mears, 17 Paul Doran Jones, 18 Tom Palmer, 19 Phil Dowson, 20 Lee Dickson, 21 Toby Flood, 22 Jonathan Joseph.