Ever since winning the World Cup under the watchful eye of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, South Africa have become the team atop everyone’s hitlist. They have beaten the All Blacks, downed Six Nations champions Wales and silenced world rugby’s dark horses, Scotland. Their next foe is England, who have just romped to a 32-15 win over Dave Rennie’s Australia.
South Africa are arguably the most structured side in international rugby – and England are a team who thrive off unstructured scenarios. This Saturday’s match could be a case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, and whoever wins will need to be at the top of their game. Let’s have a look at some of the match-ups that will decide the Test.
It’s no secret that Nienaber’s side pride themselves on their strength at the maul. Malcolm Marx’s five tries for the Boks in 2021 speak for themselves, especially when you consider the fact he has only started one game. In the second half, as England start to tire, South Africa will continue to punish at the maul.
On the contrary, let’s have a look at how Australia defended England’s maul last week.
As Jonny Hill descends to terra firma from a close-range lineout, Rory Arnold aims not for Hill but for second-row partner Maro Itoje. Arnold makes enough of an intervention to put Itoje in a somewhat upright position, allowing Rob Valetini to shove him backwards.
Arnold manages to work his arms around Hill to get closer to the ball but Jamie George is still quite far from Arnold, holding the ball. Michael Hooper, guarding the open side, spots Kyle Sinckler in an upright position and provides another counter-drive. England are pushed back twice and Ben Youngs immediately uses the ball on the back foot. This passage ends with Jonny May getting tackled into touch.
One would suspect Nienaber’s team have analysed this lineout and will be looking for a potential English weakness.
This is another area that’s usually quite tough to predict the outcome. Against Australia, England won three scrum penalties but conceded two. South Africa, however, won five scrum penalties against Scotland, while conceding zero. South Africa have once again loaded their bench with the titanic Steven Kitshoff and Vincent Koch, with the meaty Trevor Nyakane and Ox Nché starting.
Eddie Jones will be delighted that young Bevan Rodd notched up a win on his first cap but he would be foolish not to expect the Springboks to target him. Additionally, the experienced George is expected to miss out, with try-scoring sensation Jamie Blamire taking his place. While Jones will back these talented young men, a weight of expectation and leadership falls on Sinckler. Being the most experienced front rower by such a long stretch will be something Sinckler hasn’t often faced in his 51 Test caps, but the Bristol Bear has made a habit of rising to big occasions.
Usually, if England were to lose captain Owen Farrell, the onus of game-management would fall to George Ford. Not this time. The remarkably hyped-up, in-form youngster Marcus Smith will steer the ship for England, with the help of Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade in the centres. Smith is used to playing with man-mountain André Esterhuizen and fleet-footed Joe Marchant at Harlequins, so this is the perfect English midfield to help Smith rise to the occasion.
On the flipside, South Africa have opted for Handré Pollard to relentlessly pump the ball into the sky from the No10 position, with Damian de Allende to counter the attacking threat of Tuilagi, with added breakdown prowess. Lukhanyo Am will carry on his run of exceptional form, allowing nobody to take him on the outside.
With this in mind, you’d imagine England won’t try to play outside the Bok midfield. Tuilagi will carry short and Slade will play much more like he does with Exeter Chiefs – utilising his rangy left boot and sharp lines of running. This will be a true test of Smith’s game-management skills, which he has developed in the past 18 months at club level.
Freddie Steward vs Willie Le Roux
Many Springbok supporters have accused their full-back of being out of form but there is more to Le Roux’s role than meets the eye. Not only does he rule the skies but Le Roux’s ability to step in as a first receiver gives South Africa so many more options in attack. Here’s a quick look Le Roux’s influence last Saturday against Scotland.
In the lead-up to Makazole Mapimpi’s first try, Le Roux finds himself nearer to the breakdown than fly-half Elton Jantjies. He sends in a forward as a dummy runner to provide some protection, then calls for the ball. He has Jantjies running a short line on his immediate left, holding a defender.
Le Roux’s pass lands just in front of De Allende but it forces him to run the correct line to execute a 3v2 in a short channel. The pass puts De Allende on the outside of Jamie Ritchie, who De Allende fixes with ease before passing to Siya Kolisi. Kolisi executes a 2v1 with the full-back to put Mapimpi away to score.
Mapimpi’s second try was also assisted by Le Roux attacking as a first receiver, delivering a pass for Jantjies to set De Allende away.
Facing Le Roux will be 20-year-old Freddie Steward. Steward showed his attacking prowess against Australia but it is unlikely he will see as much space against the Boks. In his most recent Test match, Steward made an average of 10metres per run, beating five defenders along the way. This is the perfect opportunity for Steward to show Jones that he is the perfect full-back ahead of 2023 – he has shown he can run the ball back and he is strong in contact. The real test for the youngster is to show the maturity in the air and the kicking range he has displayed at Leicester Tigers – which is arguably what got him into the England team in the first place.
South Africa don’t look like losing right now. Wales showed the potential to be Bok beaters but slipped away in the last 20 minutes. Scotland put up a good fight but couldn’t cope with the impact of the ‘Bomb Squad’ (South Africa’s replacement front five). England have a young, confident spine of their team, who will back themselves physically. If England are to win, one would expect a masterclass in game-management from Smith and Steward, married with up-front excellence from Blamire and Rodd.
England’s assertive display against the Wallabies gives off the essence of the future but you can’t help but think that if the Boks were going to lose a game this autumn, they would have done it by now.