England vs South Africa: Wounded Springboks will be the ultimate test for undermanned hosts at Twickenham

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South Africa have beaten Wales and Scotland already this autumn  (AFP via Getty Images)
South Africa have beaten Wales and Scotland already this autumn (AFP via Getty Images)

The good news about playing against this world champion Springboks team is that you know exactly what is coming.

They announce their team early — Tuesday this week — and when they do, it contains a lot of familiar faces. On Saturday at Twickenham, nine of the starters and three replacements have more than 50 caps. Five more of the squad have more than 25. The team that won the World Cup in 2019 remains intact, and the bruising nature of each of their wins remains etched in the minds of their opponents.

The bad news is that knowing what is coming does not make it any easier to stop. There is not much you can do about being overpowered.

England head coach Eddie Jones has set his team up as well as he could within the parameters of the squad he selected. He has a back three, with Joe Marchant brought in, who can all catch. He has three locks in his pack, as well as two opensides to chase quick ball. He has six forwards on his bench.

The trouble is he is undermanned in crucial areas. At prop, he has Bevan Rodd, a 21-year-old with one cap who, in reality, is probably his fifth best tight-head. At hooker, he has Jamie Blamire, who has made headlines for his try-scoring, not his set-piece work and is second choice at his club and third for his country. He has a rookie fly-half and full-back, and is missing his captain, Owen Farrell. Victory would be a fine achievement indeed.

On Thursday, Jones tried to position his side as underdogs, and with a point to prove about their strength. The trouble is they are coming up against a Springboks side not only in form — they have beaten the All Blacks, Wales and Scotland in recent weeks — but scorned. Feeling aggrieved, a bunker mentality and a desperation to prove the outside world wrong tends to come easily to South African rugby.

Somehow, in the two years since their third World Cup win, South Africa have gone from being a much-admired side, a symbol of inclusivity, to a team that seem to garner little respect beyond their homeland because of their unloved, straightforward style of play. This seems unfair, not least because they still have flying outside-backs and the ability to score wonderful tries.

England vs South Africa

Springbok stars to watch

Eben Etzebeth

Back with his best partner, Lood de Jager, Etzebeth is in the form of his career. The enforcer who gives the Boks their hard edge but a skilful forward, too.

Turned 30 last month after a decade on the scene and 96 caps. Until the Bomb Squad arrive, will provide a fearsome challenge for Maro Itoje and Co.

Cobus Reinach

Reinach offers a different threat to the injured Faf de Klerk. The kicking focus shifts to Handre Pollard at fly-half, but Reinach is a livewire and far greater running threat.

He is familiar to Courtney Lawes, his former Northampton team-mate, and will zip around the field, particularly hunting one of his trademark intercepts.

Makazole Mapimpi

Cheslin Kolbe might not be about — and Jesse Kriel is a bruising presence in his place — but Mapimpi means South Africa still have a sharp finisher out wide.

Has overcome adversity to reach the top and is in a seriously rich vein of form. He has 19 tries in 24 Tests, including two against Scotland last week.

And this week, major motivation arrived from World Rugby’s offices in Dublin — twice. First, the body decided to ignore the Boks — and the All Blacks for that matter — on their shortlist for Men’s Player of the Year. No Lukhanyo Am, Eben Etzebeth, or any other South African.

Then they announced that the Boks’ director of rugby, and waterboy, Rassie Erasmus was banned from all rugby activity for two months and from all matchday activities until September next year for his 62-minute rant about referee Nic Berry’s performance in the opening Lions Test earlier this year.

So the Boks will be sticking two fingers up to World Rugby, and they will be doing it for Rassie, which is a dangerous combination. Jones knows that, but wants to use it against them.

“We know what South Africa will bring,” he said. “We know the physicality. We know the Rassie story will help them. It suits them perfectly. But we’re going to write our own story and we think our story might be a bit better than their story.”

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