By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail. England certainly failed to prepare for the effects of altitude at Ellis Park on Saturday and defeat in the first Test was the end result.
Jamie George acknowledged after the game that it hit the players hard after the opening quarter, which makes defence coach Paul Gustard’s comments that “It didn’t affect them” and that “it didn’t even register” completely baffling. The effects were there for all to see.
I think South Africa got swept up in the emotion of the occasion in the opening 20 minutes and they were all over the shop but England did execute really well and were on the front foot with George Ford, in particular, pulling the strings.
If that Test match was anywhere else in the world, England probably wouldn’t have let a 21-point lead slip against South Africa but it was at Ellis Park and, as well as the fact that England haven’t won there for 46 years, altitude is an enormous factor.
I played there when I played for the Sharks and you do hit a wall after around 20 minutes. You get a burning sensation in your throat and it’s like you’re tasting blood.
I’d never played at altitude before when we went to face the Lions in Super Rugby and all the South African boys in the squad were warning me what it’d be like. They told me to warm up really hard but I was having none of it and it hit me after the opening quarter just as they said it would.
The pace I played at it didn’t make much difference but at international level it makes a real difference and we saw experienced players doing things you really wouldn’t expect them to.
There were a lot of individual errors with star men like Mako Vunipola and Maro Itoje guilty of as many as anyone and you can say that it’s hard to legislate for that but there were system errors as well because England were being beaten down the short side at will and the coaches and players will have to take a hard look at all of that this week.
For me the biggest mistake though was in the preparation and not training at altitude.
You have to question why England have based themselves in Durban for this tour when they’re playing two of the Tests at altitude. Durban is a beautiful place, I lived there for three months and it’s the best place in South Africa at this time of year but it isn’t the best place to prepare for Test matches in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein.
If you’re playing the games at altitude, you absolutely have to be training at altitude as well. Only Eddie Jones and those in charge of organising this tour can answer why they’ve chosen to be based in Durban but it looks like a huge error of judgement.
The Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein isn’t quite as high as Ellis Park so it won’t hit England quite as ferociously and they’ll be more used to it after the weekend but the only way to prepare for it properly is to train at altitude in the week leading up to the Test and England aren’t doing that.
Eddie Jones has got a history of hooking players. He did it to Luther Burrell and Teimana Harrison and sometimes coaches should be praised for seeing the problem and being strong enough to take action quickly but it seemed harsh to take Nick Isiekwe off before half-time and plan B didn’t work.
I’m not sure how much Brad Shields has trained at second row but he’d been in camp less than a week and he’s brought on before half-time in an unfamiliar position and that exposes the policy of not having a recognised lock on the bench.
I hope lessons are learned from that and Shields is played in the back row this weekend. Tom Curry made 20 tackles and had a decent game but I think he needs a more destructive player alongside him on the other flank and I’d start Shields this week.
Chris Robshaw didn’t have any impact on the game at all and gave a penalty away at a key time. He still works hard but I don’t think he adds enough value nowadays when power and getting over the gainline is so important in the back row and I think the game is moving away from him.
Launchbury should be fit to return in the second row but I don’t see Eddie Jones making too many changes. Mike Brown finished his try really well and did some good things but made errors in defence because he isn’t a winger, so I still wouldn’t pick him there.
Likewise, Elliot Daly hasn’t started at full back for Wasps for over four years so I can understand why he’s seen as a good option there going forwards but it’s to be expected that he’ll make mistakes when he’s not used to playing there.
For all England’s failures, South Africa played some scintillating attacking rugby of their own and Rassie Erasmus deserves credit for bringing back Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux, who have been strutting their stuff in the Premiership this season and were outstanding.
He’s called up another Premiership star in Schalk Brits this week at the age of 37 and just as he is set to retire. That’ll seem strange to some but the rugby intellect that he can offer and a bit of inside knowledge on his Saracens colleagues as well could prove invaluable.
Why wouldn’t you do it? It’s a brilliant story and it’d be a fairytale ending to his career if he could come off the bench for his country one last time.
England will improve as a team this week without a doubt and there’s every chance that they’ll come out on top and take the series to a decider in Cape Town but the clouds hanging over this team and coaching staff are getting darker by the day and a win in Bloemfontein is now a necessity.
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