It’s not the situation any England player, coach or fan wanted to be in.
Heading into the third and final Test at Newlands in Cape Town with the series gone and nothing but pride to play for, yet this is the situation they find themselves in.
We’re quick to point the finger at England and yes, there have been significant shortcomings so far on the tour, but time must also be taken to praise the Springboks and Rassie Erasmus, who have been excellent, clinical and organised, amidst glare from the media that is every bit as intense as that that England must deal with.
Sounds coming out of the Springbok camp suggest Erasmus will make several changes for this final Test. Not so many as to throw away the chance for a 3-0 whitewash of England, but enough for him to get an idea of how four or five fresh players into the group go and how they cut it at international level under his guidance.
England need to do likewise.
There is no point making wholesale changes, creating disruption and a lack of cohesion in the squad that would only lead to an inevitable defeat, but this is a golden opportunity to run the rule over some of the players on the fringe of the squad this summer.
We have picked out five key changes that could help salvage this series for Eddie Jones. Not because they will change the result of the series, which is already in the record books as a loss, but because they can give him insight and options moving forward, that he did not have before.
Move Owen Farrell to 10 or start Danny Cipriani
George Ford hasn’t been the reason England have lost the last two matches and many will claim that it’s unfair to bench him because of that, but Farrell is England’s best back and his best position is fly-half, whilst Cipriani demonstrated some nice touches off the bench at the weekend and deserves a chance to show what he can do from the start.
England’s lack of inside centre options has seen Farrell play at 12 for most of Jones’ tenure, yet he is widely regarded as the best fly-half in English rugby. He would solidify England’s 10 channel in defence, something that South Africa and Duane Vermeulen in particular, have targeted throughout the series.
Alternatively, a start for Cipriani would allow England to see how he dovetails with Farrell outside of him, should they continue to lack for faith in available alternatives at inside centre. He plays like this is his last chance to wear an England jersey and though that uncertainty might not seem like the greatest of working conditions, it seems to bring the best out of Cipriani, who clearly thrives under pressure.
Alex Lozowski to start at 13
Henry Slade had moments in the first two Tests, with ball in hand, where you felt as if he was born to the role. As a player capable of linking the pack and the half-backs with the back-three in the wider channels, he is as adept as anyone in English rugby.
Unfortunately, he struggled defensively with his positioning and work in conjunction with the back-three and he doesn’t have the same lateral quickness that Jonathan Joseph does, meaning there is no room for error in his decision-making.
One question we have had no answer to is could Lozowski provide that link between the narrow and wide, whilst also offering more security defensively?
This is an opportunity to get some insight into that, as well as seeing if he can translate the success of his hard lines back against the grain from Premiership rugby to international rugby.
Give Jonny Hill an opportunity
Jones knows exactly what he’s going to get from Maro Itoje and Joe Launchbury and you get the feeling Nick Isiekwe’s tour – as a starter – was over the moment Jones made the questionable decision to withdraw him in the first half of the first Test.
Hill was one of the form second-rows in the Premiership last season and whilst that is no guarantee that he will make it at Test level, it’s time to see if he can cut it or not.
Cape Town won’t be quite the baptism of fire to international rugby that Johannesburg or Bloemfontein are, so there are no reasons not to give him a chance to show what he can do this weekend.
At worst, a spot should be found for him on the bench, with England’s two locks in the 23 strategy not working over the first two games of the series and Launchbury flagging in the second half at altitude last weekend.
Jones during a England training session held at Pennyhill Park
Start Ben Spencer
England don’t have scrum-half depth. They have a starter in Ben Youngs and an impact sub in Danny Care.
When Care was given the summer off to rest, there was real hope from media and fans alike that England would test out their scrum-half options and find an alternative to Youngs, should the Leicester man face injury again next season.
Across the opening two Tests, Spencer has seen 11 minutes of action. Very little has been learned – on the field – about what Spencer can bring to the role of international scrum-half.
He is clearly favoured to Dan Robson, so give him the start in Cape Town and see how he controls a game. Based on his time in the Premiership and Champions Cup, it’s something you’d expect him to do well, but there will always be doubt until he proves he can replicate it at Test level.
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Stay out of the breakdown
A few times this summer, England have been caught narrow defensively, had backs lined up opposite powerful ball-carrying forwards and been slow to fan out and deal with the threat of a fringe-runner like Faf de Klerk.
Given how England are built around a core of Saracens players, maybe it’s a time to take a leaf out of that Saracens defensive playbook and not commit significant numbers to the breakdown. It’s long been an area of inconsistency with England and maybe avoiding it as much as possible is the best strategy for the short-term.
Saracens love to keep defenders on their feet, fan out and put the pressure on with their line-speed. They are keener for attacking sides to make mistakes in possession under the pressure they bring, than trying to force turnovers with their numbers at the breakdown.
Of course, if the ball is there to be stolen, players shouldn’t be told to shy away from that, but as a general policy, keeping defenders on their feet and bringing pressure might be a way for the England defence to have more effect as they go through this tough phase.
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