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FEATURE Ben Kay: 'I’ve seen bigger upsets in sport than England winning tonight'

Ben Kay: 'I’ve seen bigger upsets in sport than England winning tonight'
8 months ago

Rassie Erasmus is a pantomime villain in many quarters. A character some fans love to hate. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t a fan of what he did to referees during the Lions Series in 2021. I’m sure when he did it he was trying to stoke up his nation but he probably didn’t think ahead and realise how big the consequences would be, especially the personal upset to refs like Wayne Barnes.

In saying that, we do want our coaches to show us their personalities and to give authentic responses to questions – we don’t just want vanilla answers. I don’t think Rassie is capable of being boring and as a loveable rogue with a twinkle in his eye, the whole of South Africa loves him and his players love him because he creates this amazing, family-like atmosphere in camp. He’s a coach players will go the extra mile for.

Allied to that, he thinks a bit differently. Take Damian Willemse calling a mark and a scrum and winning a penalty. This was at a time when none of us even remembered it was an option. Those little one percenters can add up in a game. Who knows whether he knew Kolbe was going to try and charge down Thomas Ramos. The French director should have made sure there was an angle on it, so the TMO could have been forced to have a look at it, but it was very, very clever and sums up the Springboks’ innovative thinking.

This brings us to England and Steve Borthwick. I actually quite like what he’s done with his 23. Having Joe Marler there from the start try and match up to Malherbe is smart. If Ellis Genge is spending all his time trying to move that immovable rock, he’s not going to be punching holes as a carrier.

Joe Marler
Joe Marler has been brought in to try and nullify the threat of Frans Malherbe at scrum-time (Photo MIGUEL MEDINA/Getty Images)

He’s put George Martin in the front-five as a ball-carrier in the tight exchanges, instead of Ollie Chessum. George can put dents where they’re not there because England are under no illusions as to how physical the South Africans will be.

The hope for England is that when South Africa start to make their changes, they’re close enough to be able to strike. They’ve just got to hang in there. In fact, I’d feel more nervous England defending a small lead than chasing a small deficit.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on Tom Curry. He hasn’t been at his best in the small amount of time he’s had in this tournament, but he’s due a few key turnovers in the game and everyone else can feed off that.

The other selection of note is Freddie Steward in for Marcus Smith, who misses out through concussion. If fit I know they fancied putting Marcus in, but if this was the quarter-final fixture, I wonder if they’d have plumped for Steward anyway because of his aerial strength. It’s a chance for Freddie. Sometimes when you know you’re not playing that well, you go out trying to avoid making mistakes in case you’re dropped but once you’ve actually been dropped, as Freddie has for the first time in his England career, your mindset shifts. You start trying to everything you did when you were trying to get selected in the first place. Like Owen Farrell last week, it may have done him the world of good.

Elsewhere, I’ll be keeping a close eye on Tom Curry. He hasn’t been at his best in the small amount of time he’s had in this tournament, but he’s due a few key turnovers in the game and everyone else can feed off that. England need standout performances from their best players to act as a catalyst.

Freddie Steward
With Marcus Smith out with concussion, Freddie Steward returns with a point to prove (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

They won’t say anything in public but deep down South Africa are the one team England would like to mimic because they play the style of rugby that England want to play but the Boks do it slightly better. England can play against New Zealand and Australia in a way that’s physicality-led, whereas against South Africa, they’ve simply been unable to impose themselves in recent years.

With (Joe) Marler and (Dan) Cole starting, I’d expect England will change their tactics when their numbers are up. In the first scrum of the game, I can see Coley winning a penalty and everyone going, ‘way-hey, here we go’. He will be super-pumped so hopefully he can back it up. It’ll take three or four scrums to really see what it’s going to look like at scrum-time. The huge worry is that, like the final four years ago, if he gets penalised early on, the belief will start to wane pretty quickly. England look like they’re going to try and match them step-for-step and hope they aren’t quite at the races.

I think if fans are waiting for England to create some miracle tries, they’re going to be disappointed. It will be about being difficult to beat, so the pressure builds on South Africa.

Out wide, there’s been some debate about why Jonny May is being picked over Henry Arundell. Clearly, Arundell is clearly the more exciting talent, but Jonny’s in there for his experience. He’s traditionally quite strong in the air and if you go back to a few of those games against Ireland, where they had the best box-kicking game, England won because Jonny was superb aerially. He’s had a disappointing tournament as a finisher, but he has the ability to go off on those mazy runs. I think Borthers wants his defensive stability.

I think if fans are waiting for England to create some miracle tries, they’re going to be disappointed. It will be about being difficult to beat, so the pressure builds on South Africa. If England are within a score by the last quarter, the hope is that the Boks start to worry.

Owen Farrell
Owen Farrell will put in a performance for England whether he is booed or not, showing his resilience (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Leading England in this quest is Owen Farrell. I genuinely think he’s made peace with the fact that he’s not that popular. I did a corporate gig with him a while back, and he’s a really good bloke. He’ll turn up whether England win or lose and take any questions from the floor. He’s just so honest. His attitude is, ‘if you don’t like me, that’s fine, I just want to win’. His resilience rubs off on people.

South Africa are favourites and I think they will win. If they played each other 10 times, I think South Africa would come out on top 7-8 times

What I just don’t get is English fans booing him last weekend in Marseille. I just don’t know how you can boo your own captain, even if you don’t think he should be picked. Typically, he showed his mental strength on the field with a very composed performance. He’s scored nearly 4,000 points in rugby and is a legend however you look at it. Every player you speak to says what an amazing, inspirational team-mate he is, so they can’t all be wrong.

South Africa are favourites and I think they will win. If they played each other 10 times, I think South Africa would come out on top 7-8 times. The momentum England have picked up in the last few weeks will help and the pressure is off. No one expects them to win this game. The Boks are overwhelming favourites, but I’ve seen bigger upsets in sport than England winning tonight.

Comments

4 Comments
P
Peter 246 days ago

Reading this after the game, the writer was pretty spot on!

P
PaPaRumple 247 days ago

Saying the boks are playing English rugby slightly better is a joke. Boks are lightyears ahead of England.

s
strachan 247 days ago

Like Fiji was robbed to prevent England from losing

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