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FEATURE 'There is far too much naysaying around England - the Boks are beatable'

'There is far too much naysaying around England - the Boks are beatable'
7 months ago

Maro Itoje turned to the wisdom of a Nigerian proverb when England last lost to South Africa at a World Cup. “When a ram goes backwards it is not retreating,” he wrote on Twitter after losing the 2019 final, “it moves back to gather more strength.”

Following the retreat from Yokohama four years ago, England will hope the ram is out of hibernation and on the charge in Paris on Saturday. It had better be.

Let’s state the obvious: England will need to defy their recent (patchy, at best) form if they are to be in with the vaguest of sniffs of causing a last-four upset at Stade de France.

But let’s not forget something in danger of being overlooked with all the hullabaloo about how magnificent this Springboks side is: they are fallible and they are beatable.

Yes, they were – in many respects – ruggedly superb and surgically devastating against France. Yes, a cogent case can be made for these Springboks being stronger than those who lifted the Webb Ellis Cup four years ago. Yes, South Africa were stratospheric at times – or as David Flatman said in commentary, “mega”. But the megaton Boks and their Bomb Squad are not invincible. They were beaten by Ireland last month and would have been beaten by France, but for a charged-down conversion and France’s inability to cope with the fusillade of high balls.

France v South Africa
The Springboks edged France in a Parisian epic on Sunday night (Photo Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images)

While it was undoubtedly a great South Africa performance, it wasn’t without its moments of doziness. The Boks were surprisingly slow to get their try-line defensive shape set in the seconds leading up to Peato Mauvaka’s score. Antoine Dupont spotted the tardiness, took a quick tap and threw the cut-out pass to put his hooker over the line. That said, Cheslin Kolbe’s charge-down of the conversion showed just how switched on South Africa can be.

The cult of the Boks – the halo of uncompromising, unmatchable physicality which has grown up around the team and become synonymous with it – can be overstated. If an opposition emphasises it too much then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; they are three-quarters-beaten before they even step on to the pitch.

Rugby is not for robots and South Africa are Boks, not bots.

There is far too much naysaying around England and this semi-final, far too much underplaying of the fact that – inch by inglorious inch – England have dragged themselves into contention in this tournament. If they can manage their demons and not let the Boks’ aura enter their collective psyche, they can have an honest crack at this one.

England need to channel some of the spirit Mike Tindall adopted before a Six Nations game against France several moons ago. Towards the end of a long international career, Tindall had the joyous task of marking the 18-stone Mathieu Bastareaud in midfield.

“How are you going to contain Bastareaud in the centres, Mike,” asked a TV reporter.

Tindall, who had pretty much seen it all on a rugby field by this point, grinned and paused a moment.

“The same way you tackle any prop,” he said.

A dose of humour and confidence in your own technique can go a long way. In the case of the upcoming semi-final, it can help neutralise the premium the Boks can accrue by opponents fearing their physical dominance before they’ve even kicked off.

Manu Tuilagi scored a muscular try as England powered past Fiji to reach the semi-finals (Photo by PA)

England need to field a big, powerful team to contend with South Africa, of course. But more important is fielding the players with the psychological strength to match them – players who have the belief they can win and that, yes, these Boks have chinks in their armour.

Rugby is not for robots and South Africa are Boks, not bots. The strain of having to prepare for a succession of big games against Scotland, Ireland and France already in this competition will have taken some emotional toll, and the experience of having to hang on for dear life against the French in Paris in a final-like contest will have been especially draining. England will need to try and exploit some of that emotional fatigue. And England, by contrast, have had a – comparatively – genteel route to the semi-finals.

Not that it’s all been plain sailing.

Against Fiji, England got the fright they needed – and the pressure they needed – to make sure they don’t go up against South Africa undercooked. Although it won’t have felt like it at the time, Fiji’s second-half fightback was just what England required: a test of their character and ability to adapt under pressure in the furnace of knock-out rugby.

Manu Tuilagi had the old fire in the eyes and the quads. And Owen Farrell fizzed some bullets to his outside backs and showed the maturity to drop a goal just when it mattered.

What gives England an iota of hope is some of their big beasts of earlier days have begun to show the spirit of Itoje’s ram. Against Fiji, Itoje himself played with more controlled urgency than we’ve seen for a while, and when he galloped forward during a first-half surge his long strides could be read as a metaphor for the progress both he individually and the team collectively have started to make.

Manu Tuilagi had the old fire in the eyes and the quads. And Owen Farrell fizzed some bullets to his outside backs and showed the maturity to drop a goal just when it mattered. Then some of the newer boys delivered, too, most eye-catchingly Ben Earl. What a blast he is having in France, making 372 metres from 48 carries and beating 17 defenders.

South Africa have shaken things up this World Cup, whether through unpredictable bench splits, whipping captain Siya Kolisi off the pitch early, or opting for a scrum after calling a mark in their own 22. England need to counter that unpredictability with some of their own; something to put the cat among the pigeons, the lions among the springboks. The England coaches, it seems, appreciate this.

“We need to work out a way of playing smart enough this week to get ourselves in this contest,” said attack coach Richard Wigglesworth. England will need to play the smartest rugby they have done in a very long time. Their rugby IQ must go through the roof.

A structured, pinpoint-accurate kicking game will be essential. England have kicked 50% more than the Boks this tournament, but there will be no margin for error against a South Africa backline that has shown itself to be blistering on the counter. Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse are rocket-fast and quick to pounce, as they showed against France. Kolbe’s stats from that game were particularly eye-popping: 317 metres with an average of 16.7 metres per carry. Do that against England and it’s likely the Red Rose will wilt faster than it did in Yokohama.

Four years ago in Japan, South Africa undid England up front and out wide. If the task was tough back in 2019, it is no less tough now. Many of that South African band of brothers remain in harness – only with more experience and, by definition, big-game know-how.

Their back-row alone is formidable, a heady brew of strength, guile, leadership and charisma: Pieter-Steph du Toit, Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen. The streetwise hustler Kwagga Smith will enter the fray off the bench. And that’s before we mention the tight five.

England were soundly beaten by a dominant Springboks side in the 2019 World Cup final (Photo by PA)

The Springboks’ belief in their scrum is worn on their sleeves. Damian Willemse’s much-talked about ploy to choose a scrum after calling a mark was not only an expression of confidence and defiance to the French. It was also the loudest of signals to the rest of the tournament: we will take you on head-to-head, tire you out and grind you into the turf. For an England pack which took a battering in the set-piece four years ago, it is enough to make you gulp very deeply indeed.

But if South Africa have the scrum flex, England have the drop-goal flex. After George Ford’s ice-cold application of the kick to see off Argentina in the first round pool matches, there was Farrell getting in on the act. And wouldn’t there be a gorgeous irony to a South Africa side being drop-kicked out of a World Cup?

The Boks, of course, are more than a scrummaging behemoth. Compared with the South Africa of four years ago, this iteration has more in its box of tricks. There is more going on behind the pack, with Manie Libbok’s distribution and bounding stride giving them a dimension that Handre Pollard – for all his formidable kicking prowess – doesn’t possess.

England’s attack may still be locating its serrated edge, but it is moving in the right direction. Tuilagi’s try against Fiji was an object lesson in smart build-up play and precise finishing.

Mind games or cap-doffing admiration? England supporters will hope it’s not the latter. Anything other than confidence will spell curtains.

But we can shoot the breeze about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two sides… and then fortune can screw it all up and lob it into the dustbin of history. Remember Kyle Sinckler’s bizarre concussion just two minutes into the 2019 final? A great front-row battle was over before it had even begun, and the dye was cast in the South Africans’ favour.

Earlier this week, Wigglesworth, the attack coach, was laying it on with the proverbial trowel when talking about the quality of England’s opposition. “We are talking about one of the best rugby teams ever, aiming to go back-to-back, who have evolved, and have had a solid coaching team for six years,” he said. “They have a core group of players and they have added quality to it. They are an impressive outfit.”

Mind games or cap-doffing admiration? England supporters will hope it’s not the latter. Anything other than confidence will spell curtains.

The ram and the Boks. Who will prevail? When the horns lock, a lot of it will be in the mind.


Bob Marler 239 days ago

England definitely have a chance. The naysaying is concentrated up north.

Ed 240 days ago

Thinks this is pretty much spot on. Optimistic about the drop goals….England have a chance and sport does funny things

Schneider 240 days ago

On current form- Eng have a 20% chance of winning. Equates to 1 win in 5 games if played vs the Boks.

Rain is forecasted. Boks played poorly vs Romania for about 15minutes in torrential rain.

That will take Eng to a 30-40% chance.

Boks no matter what they say will be physicially and emotionally drained after that France game, much like Ireland were slightly off their game vs NZ, Boks will be likewise a few % points of top form.

If Eng wanted to play the Boks best time would be after Boks played Scot Ire Tonga and Fra, also Boks have not made a single change to their squad.

Rassie says , every player is interchangeable- This is simply a lie.

Marvin Orie is nowhere near the class and impact of Eben Etzebeth.

Boks could have freshened things up by bringing on A Esterhuizen for DeAllemde, Wiese for Vermuelen, and Possibly Moodie for one of the wingers.

They havent.

Eng wont be favourites, but then again neither were NZ or SA last weekend.

The drop goal skills of Farrel/Ford will come in very handy.

If Eng can go into the final 1/4 with a lead OR more or less on parity scorewise, they can feel confident of causing an upset.

Boks need to keep level headed, bring the pain, be clinical and ruthless and the game could be over by the 60min mark.

Its Paris, a semi, WC, rain, anything can happen…

Kwasi 240 days ago

I am very familiar with that Nigerian proverb. But I have never seen that ram coming out of hiding again. It just disappeared.

JD Kiwi 240 days ago

The number one thing England have to do is nullify South Africa's strengths or they'll be strangled and picked off.

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. Don't give them a sniff in those areas.

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. With South Africa coming down from the monumental effort last week they might stay in the contest and who knows?

Stephen 240 days ago

Maro Itoje is the biggest piece of garbage there is. I remember that trash kneeling heavily on the throat of a Bok player during the first Lions test🤮

Jacque 240 days ago

There is waaaaay too much hype around Eng causing an upset. Everybody on about they’re unbeaten.
Top 3 or 4 teams in the world would ALSO be unbeaten against the oppsition England have played against.

Nothing to write home about.

Boks by 12 - 20 points.

Simon 240 days ago

“They were beaten by Ireland last month and would have been beaten by France, but for a charged-down conversion and France’s inability to cope with the fusillade of high balls.” Is this really the only two aspects of the match where the French were beaten, or did you run out of ink in your crayons? I watched another game, though. Having said that, England and South Africa will have to pitch up with their A+ game.

Riekert 240 days ago

I’m confidently nervous about this one, barring one or two positions man for man boks are better then England, if both teams play at their best Boks to win, but rugby and sport in general has it’s moments when it does spring a surprise just hope tomorrow is not one of those days, Go Bokke.

mitch 240 days ago

It’s going to be a cracking match, England controlled the Fiji team and switched off and they got back into the game late. France went out to play attacking rugby and were very unlucky to lose but you’re always at risk of the counter when playing more open rugby. Against France the Boks had the rub of the green, the bounce of the ball went their way but this will be a totally different game. It will more of a slugfest and played tight. England will kick directly to the Boks wingers to have them flat footed and contest. Boks start favourites but this game is in no way a given. The Boks had a huge game last week and doubt they will be at that level again this week.

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