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FEATURE How England can exorcise the Springboks ghosts of 2019

How England can exorcise the Springboks ghosts of 2019
8 months ago

There is always a motivational edge to be found somewhere, in games of rugby at elite level. England will not have to look far to discover theirs for the upcoming semi-final against South Africa. They will stop, and look no further than the 2019 loss to the same opponents in the World Cup final at Yokohama.

They may also cast a sidelong glance at the last match of the Eddie Jones era at Twickenham in 2022, where so many of the same features of the encounter three years previously were repeated.

England haemorrhaged five scrum penalties in the first game, and another four in the second.

Despite a few more wistful ‘tinker-man’ tweaks by the incoming head coach Steve Borthwick, that 27-13 defeat at the old cabbage patch marked the natural end of the Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith alliance at numbers 10 and 12 in midfield. The performance in those two areas – the scrum and the Farrell/Smith combination – will be key to England’s hopes of success against the Springboks.

The 2022 defeat probably ended Will Stuart’s aspirations of starting at tight head prop in any of the serious World Cup games. But Borthwick still has three of the four-man prop pool held over from that Yokohama final. Dan Cole has been elevated to starter at the ripe old age of 36, with Kyle Sinckler behind him on the bench. The order was reversed in Japan. Joe Marler will start life from the pine, and Jamie George is still hooking, so the only change has been Ellis Genge in for Mako Vunipola.

Sinckler knocked out
Kyle Sinckler started the 2019 World Cup final but was quickly invalided from the match after a head knock. (Photo by Getty Images)

England has always been a proud nation at the set-piece, so they will be looking to right some wrongs, As Rassie Erasmus rightly pointed out after South Africa had beaten hosts France:

“You could see on their faces four years ago the disappointment, and I’ve been part of a squad that’s fallen out in a semi-final in a World Cup – and it sits with you the rest of your life.

“There’s a lot of things you look back and regret, and maybe think you could have done differently, and I’m sure they will come with that mindset this weekend.

“I think they will be ruthless, I think they will take their intensity and physicality to a whole new level.

“But that being said, we’re prepared for that, we’re ready for that and we enjoy that. That’s always a part of the game we love and if there’s going to be beef, there’s going to be beef.”

If you have the nickname ‘Ox’ in South African rugby, you better be prepared to justify it on the field of play.

There will be a call for redemption after what happened four years ago, and there will be beef. But is it realistic against a Springbok prop platoon which is likely to be even stronger than it was in Japan?

Even in the absence of man-mountain rake Malcolm Marx, the Springbok propping stocks have been bolstered by rise of the human dynamo loose-head Ox Nche. If you have the nickname ‘Ox’ in South African rugby, you better be prepared to justify it on the field of play. There can be no higher praise than to say that Nche is proving a worthy successor to the great ‘Os’ du Randt.

He truly announced himself by dismantling Fletcher Newell in the preparatory Test against the All Blacks at Twickenham:


The little Ox differs in physical make-up to his forebear. Du Randt was 6 foot 3 inches tall, Nche is only 5 foot 8, but it is the very compactness of his frame which gives him the ability to mine in under the taller tighthead props common in the current game.

Neither Newell nor French reserve tighthead Dorian Aldegheri were able to nail down their right shoulder against the Springbok fireplug. Aldegheri is one of the very best tighthead scrummagers in the Top 14, he is a set-piece specialist, but he gave up two penalties to Nche at a critical stage of the achingly-close encounter:


The combined pincer of Nche and hooker Bongi Mbonambi forces Aldegheri to release his bind and come up for air as the Springbok juggernaut advances remorselessly.

The potential problem for England is that they experienced significant issues at scrum-time versus Fiji in the final half hour, and most of the pressure was exerted through the right side of their set-piece:



England are looking to win a penalty via the second shove in that second example, but in both cases the Fiji left side of Peni Ravai and Sam Matavesi does a lot better than merely survive the pressure. It is first absorbed, then bounced back at the England front row as the bind between hooker Jamie George and his tighthead Kyle Sinckler comes apart at the seams. You can be sure that Bongi and the Ox will have been watching these clips with especial interest in the South Africa analysis room. If things stay the same as they were against Fiji, the new ‘Bomb Squad’ will be licking their lips.

In the backline, Steve Borthwick and his coaches made a bold and courageous call in the quarter-final. They doubled down on their selection for the group game against Chile, and picked Marcus Smith at fullback instead of the world’s best aerial defender, Freddie Steward.

As I suggested in these recent pieces, there was the potential to develop England’s attacking game if they could provide some support to either George Ford or Owen Farrell as their principal distributor.

The earlier article ended as follows:

“If Farrell starts, England have to find someone who can help him out with the play-making duties. If they turn to Ford, it may yet reunite the childhood friends who led England all the way to the World Cup final in 2019. They may not be ‘habitual criminals’ like Norman Stanley Fletcher in the television series, but they are the usual suspects. They may yet rescue the good ship Borthwick as it creaks and groans towards French harbour.”

The English coaches have given it their best shot. They found ways to include Elliot Daly’s passing ability in their game and now they have selected Marcus Smith alongside him in the back three to provide more playmaking punch.

Can England go with Smith against the Boks, and the high ball bombardment which they will inevitably bring? They might need the extra insurance policy of Steward on the right wing. Borthwick has a history of picking a second No 10 at fullback (Freddie Burns) and shifting Steward out to the edge with his club Leicester, so it is already part-and-parcel of his thinking.

With two backs who have played No 15 for England alongside him, they may be able protect Smith from the worst of the bombing:


Daly is positioned under the box kick, with Smith further infield. If England can manufacture enough situations with their wings absorbing the aerial pressure instead of the young Harlequin, they can create also enough room for him to play a game out from the back.

The matches against Chile and Fiji have already shown that the arrangement with either Farrell or Ford at No 10 and Smith at the back is far better than the attempt to shoehorn Smith into No 10 with Farrell alongside him. Farrell can handle the chores of playing within a set structure and manage field position, Smith is free to attack in space further out from the ruck or set-piece:



Second receiver suits Marcus Smith much more snugly than first, in the type of game England wants to play. In the second clip he makes the initial cut off a pass from Farrell, but Farrell is still available on the next phase to use the width of the field and chip across to Jonny May on the right.

The key for Steve Borthwick against South Africa will be total clarity about where and when he wants Smith to run. If the Leicester rule of ‘no-more-than-one-phase-before-kicking’ in England’s half of the field is likely too rigid for the Quins’ man, Marcus will also need to fine-tune his own sense of the risk-reward balance on returns by hand:


England will need more urgency and depth in their support play than this if they want their great backline experiment to succeed against the fiercest chase-line in world rugby.

The semi-final between England and South Africa could be a whole lot closer and more interesting than many are predicting. Not Rassie – he knows that England may be a tough nut to crack. In all probability, England have their best game of the tournament still nestling inside them, and there will also be some fallout from the Springboks’ colossal effort against hosts France. Games like that take their toll on body and mind, and it is hard to replicate peak performance for two weeks in a row.

For England to find their own competition pinnacle, they will need to ensure that all six members of their front row in the matchday 23 scrum for a full 80 minutes versus the enhanced ‘Bomb squad’ featuring the new Ox. No mental misses, no scrums off.

They will also need to make sure they give Marcus Smith the best chance of making a positive difference to the game, shielding him from the worst of the high-ball barrage, judging the right moments to run and unleashing his instinctive attacking talents for all the world to see.

Above all, they will feed off the humiliations of 2019 and 2022 and bang their gloves together, walk out of the corner like raging bulls, and fight for every scrap that comes their way, giving nothing back. If they can do all that, they are a chance of providing the North v South final that the tournament so richly deserves.


Jon 246 days ago

England haemorrhaged five scrum penalties in the first game, and another four in the second.

marked the natural end of the Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith alliance at numbers 10 and 12 in midfield.
Prophetic. It needed to be a combination with Ford today though. Not sure how Borthwick bottled that one. Points should have totaled that they put on Argentina.
Outstanding defence from SA to push Ford back before he could take the last chance at winning the game, grats.

Donald 248 days ago

According to Chuck Berry, ‘You never can tell’.

However, where are England going to best the Boks? Set piece? Breakdown?

If they get any, enough ball, will they kick it to heaven? The corners for territory? Maul it if they get it? Rumble it up the jumper all day?

Will they create anything through midfield?

Blowed if I know, but the runes, the odds, the algorithm don’t look too rosy red right now.

JD Kiwi 248 days ago

To be honest Nick, I think you've got the emphasis all wrong, unless I missed something. The number one thing England have to do is nullify South Africa's strengths or they'll be strangled.

They need to be solid in the set piece and tackle. Catch the high ball, support the catcher, cover the backfield, don't give them turnovers. South Africa created very little on Sunday, everything was high kick pressure or kick into the vacant backfield or grab a turnover and strike.

Too much wide attack will just give tackle target practice and a chance to kick through or counter. England should only carry if they can be sure of the clear. Otherwise it's contestable kicks, pressure the receiver, tackle, jackal. Kick goals at every opportunity like Janie de Beer.

It a long shot, but their only chance.

Derek Murray 249 days ago

I’m almost contemplating an England win after this, Nick. Just gave myself an uppercut, a la EJ and am back to seeing it as a strong Bok victory.

If the Boks are vulnerable at all, it will be this week more than next though, taking your point on how difficult two big performances are in a row.

The England front row bench will be desperate for as few scrums as possible

Mitch 249 days ago

I don’t think England will win and I’d be surprised if it’s close but they do have an excellent record in World Cup semi finals, winning 4 and losing 1.

B.J. Spratt 249 days ago

Oh, Jolly Gosh Rory, I think we should have a Pink Gin before the game at the Club
A what? Don't wear those tight trousers, I don't want the Chairman getting excited, Tally Ho see you there.

Rory 249 days ago

I wish so many would get over North V South, the final 2 will be the most deserving 2, regardless of geography.

Derik 249 days ago

I think England has been playing at slow pace deliberately. They have world class players who will turn up the pace on the day. It is going to be a tough game.

mitch 249 days ago

It was the opposite going into the 2019 final with England favourites and Boks not showing much form so never say never. Boks coming off a huge game might just be a little flat, same as the Kiwis who played the most ball in play minutes in the cup so far and one day less rest than normally. Boks and ABs firm favourites but won’t be surprised if we see one upset at least.

strachan 250 days ago

Boks will never underestimate the England team. But I would like that soccer player J Marler to play. Him and that arrogant Sinckler/ Cant wait to see the srums. England is a quality side. on the day anything is possible.

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