This year has been the most exciting for English rugby in a while. Eddie Jones has transformed the wreck of a team that were humiliated at a world cup just over a year ago to one of the strongest outfits on the globe. Nine wins on the bounce have seen a whitewash win on tour against Australia and a Grand Slam in the Six Nations. However, a recent spate of injuries have left England’s pack looking suspect ahead of their first Autumn International against a nation renowned for their forward power.
Historically England have not fared well against South Africa. Having not beaten them since 2006, when the last vestiges of the 2003 world cup winning side still played, the Red Roses never seem to be able to match the physicality of the 2007 world champions. Not a good time then to lose a plethora of second and back row options. First choice lock duo Maro Itoje and George Kruis were ruled out within 72 hours of each other with hand and ankle injuries respectively. Not only are the two, especially Itoje, verging on world class, but the 22 year old was also being touted to move to the back-row to cope with injuries there.
a recent spate of injuries have left England’s pack looking suspect ahead of their first Autumn International
England’s October training camp claimed Sam Jones, Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell and Jack Clifford, Mike Williams and incumbent number 7 James Haskell are all crocked. Saints flanker Tom Wood will compete with teammate Teimana Harrison for the vacant slot, and whist both have shown good club form, neither completely fill with confidence. Harrison endured a baptism of fire on his second appearance in Australia in which he was substituted in the first half for Courtney Lawes, whilst Eddie Jones labelled Tom Wood as “distinctly average” before the Six Nations. Courtney Lawes himself is a possible doubt for the first test after he missed Northampton’s last match with a sore knee.
In addition to the players already mentioned Manu Tuilagi and Exeter hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie make the casualty list a nice round 10. Nevertheless, it says a lot for the strength in depth in English rugby at the moment that all is not lost. If Lawes is fit he will form a strong second row pairing with Joe Launchbury. A few years ago they were the ‘Krutoje’ of today- tipped to set the world alight. If they can rediscover some of their old form then the Saracens men may not be missed. In addition, Nathan Hughes will add ballast to the back-row. Although Eddie Jones has asserted that Chris Robshaw is not a number 7, it could be that he moves to the openside to create a Hughes, Robshaw, Vunipola backrow which would surely cope with the South African physicality.
In the backs Anthony Watson’s quick feet and Jack Nowell’s abrasive edge would have been useful, but in Semesa Rokoduguni and Jonny May England have two very good wingers. Rokoduguni has been electric in the premiership for months, whilst Jonny May has proven himself at international level before, scoring a brilliant 50m try against the All-Blacks two years ago.
The view from the other camp is hardly more positive.
South Africa are not a team in form. Following a Rugby Championship which saw only two victories, a record defeat to New Zealand and a loss against Argentina for only the second time in their history, World Cup winner Joel Stransky labelled their side “very average”. He went on to state “it’s a team that will struggle against Wales. It’s a team that might even struggle against Italy.” Such statements are not usually associated with a lineup that once boasted world class players such as Bryan Habana, Schalk Burger, Pierre Spies and Morné Steyn. However, South African rugby has seen a sea of change recently. The aforementioned Burger along with fellow greats Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez and Jean de Villiers have all retired from international rugby, whilst head coach, Heynecke Meyer, surprisingly left in 2015 after leading the Springboks to a third place finish. They are very much a side in transition, which should help England, but also creates some uncertainty as to how exactly they will perform.
If England can continue the form they have shown this season, and somehow create a team that has been as well balanced as that which beat Australia, then they can take real hope into this match. If there was a time to finally beat the Springboks, it is this autumn. Eddie Jones has often talked about wanting his team to be more ruthless, and the South Africans are there for the taking, he simply needs his players to perform.