England, Springboks looking for reaction
Stuart Lancaster has been hailed as the savior of English rugby after raising standards on and off the pitch since taking over as coach following the national team’s embarrassing 2011 World Cup campaign.
Still, like any coach, he will be judged by results — especially with a home World Cup looming — and in that regard he is starting to be on uncomfortable ground.
After four straight defeats, all to New Zealand, England needs a victory against South Africa on Saturday to lift morale and ensure the southern hemisphere giants don’t arrive at next year’s World Cup with a psychological hold over Lancaster’s team.
The Springboks haven’t lost in 11 games against England stretching back to 2006, and their sheer physicality has proved too much for their opponents in recent meetings. They will also be keen to show a response after losing 29-15 to Ireland on Saturday in the opening game of their end-of-season European tour.
“The guys all know Twickenham is our place, and with the World Cup coming up in a year’s time, we need to deliver,” England captain Chris Robshaw said.
“We’re not going to wait for the physicality and intensity which I’m sure South Africa will bring. Being at home we want to impose ourselves and get back on track. No one in the squad has beaten them, so doing that would be a massive statement of intent that all the guys want to do.”
Lancaster has restored pride to the England jersey, reconnected the team to previously disillusioned fans, and put together a young, hungry side whose target is World Cup success on home soil.
Yet, the 24-21 defeat to the All Blacks was not as tight as the scoreline suggests, and was another setback against a SANZAR nation. Under Lancaster, who hasn’t led England to a Six Nations title in three attempts, the team has won just two of 12 matches against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.
Lancaster insists England isn’t far off world rugby’s top teams but New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said after last weekend’s match that the English “went back to their old style,” to the pre-Lancaster days of forward grunt.
“They wanted to get physical, drive us and out-scrum us,” Hansen said. “It is going to be with interest that I watch what they do over the next few weeks.”
England has been hit by injuries, missing its entire front row as well as the likely first-choice center pairing of Manu Tuilagi and Luther Burrell. The latest player to join the injury list is Fijian-born serving soldier Semesa Rokoduguni, who made his debut last weekend but is out with a hip problem.
Anthony Watson, 20, replaces Rokoduguni on the wing, and will make his first start in an otherwise unchanged lineup.
There has also been introspection this week among South Africa after the Ireland loss, which punctured the optimism in the Springbok camp following its landmark 27-25 win over New Zealand in the Rugby Championship last month.
The Springboks were indisciplined and error-prone in Dublin — a late yellow card cost them 13 points — and coach Heyneke Meyer suggested he won’t need to give much of a team-talk.
“This week, we don’t have to say anything — we know the players will be motivated,” Meyer said.
“We’ve accepted our performance against Ireland last weekend was not up to scratch, and everyone in the touring squad has put up their hands and dug deep this week.”
Meyer dropped five players, including highly rated Handre Pollard, with flanker Schalk Burger and JP Pietersen, a late try scorer against Ireland as a substitute, recalled. Meyer said those changes were planned before the tour.
England: Mike Brown, Anthony Watson, Brad Barritt, Kyle Eastmond, Jonny May, Owen Farrell, Danny Care; Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw (captain), Tom Wood, Courtney Lawes, Dave Attwood, David Wilson, Dylan Hartley, Joe Marler. Reserves: Rob Webber, Matt Mullan, Kieran Brookes, George Kruis, Ben Morgan, Ben Youngs, George Ford, Marland Yarde.
South Africa: Willie le Roux, JP Pietersen, Jan Serfontein, Jean de Villiers (captain), Bryan Habana, Pat Lambie, Cobus Reinach; Duane Vermeulen, Schalk Burger, Marcell Coetzee, Victor Matfield, Eben Etzebeth, Jannie du Plessis, Adriaan Strauss, Tendai Mtawarira. Reserves: Bismarck du Plessis, Trevor Nyakane, Coenie Oosthuizen, Bakkies Botha, Teboho Mohoje, Francois Hougaard, Handre Pollard, Cornal Hendricks.