Come Saturday night, Eddie Jones will have taken charge of his final England autumn international. It is not the ultimate yardstick by which the Australian’s tenure will be judged but his record in November in the role is remarkably strong – just two defeats and a draw across six campaigns, and never more than one loss in a single autumn.
With the end of another international year in sight, South Africa are back at Twickenham seeking a first away win against England since 2014. It feels a game upon which the entire English year will pivot - having snatched an improbable, dramatic late draw against New Zealand a week ago, an autumn that looked like it could dip towards disaster after defeat to Argentina at the start of the month may yet be somewhat salvaged.
“It’s an important game, we want to make sure we light up Twickenham,” said Jones. “We’re building towards the World Cup this autumn, every game we’ve got a little bit better, and we want to get better this week.”
By pure win/loss accounting, victory over the world champions would ensure England close 2022 in the black, but standing up to the Springboks’ might would perhaps represent more tangible signs of progress upon which supporters can hook their hopes for the year to come. While descriptions of South Africa as a limited side dismiss the Springboks’ varied game, England are bracing, first and foremost, for an intense physical challenge.
“I’ve never seen a Springbok team not turn up,” explained Jones. “Their belief in that game and their belief that they can physically over-power teams is immense.
“They’ve still got three big contests – scrum, lineout maul and the aerial contest. They’re judged by the players’ effort in those areas, how they can test, how combative they are in those areas. We know what’s coming, but you have to be good enough to deal with it.”
In concession to South Africa’s modus operandi, Jones opts for a taller, beefier pack, with Alex Coles brought back into the matchday 23 as a third lineout jumper on the blindside. Similarly, Tommy Freeman’s aerial skills earn him a first appearance of the autumn on the right wing. England’s front-rowers have engaged in extra scrummaging work in training this week, but Mako Vunipola’s start ahead of Ellis Genge at loosehead is down to a “gut feeling”, according to Jones.
South Africa are weaker than they’d like to be given this Test falls outside of the official international window, stripping Jacques Nienaber of his England and France-based players, but it still looks a strong Springbok unit. The promising number eight Evan Roos only adds to their lineout threat while super-dreadnought Eben Etzebeth has been in perhaps career-best form – his kaiju clash with Maro Itoje, who looks ready to again ascend to his own world-beating best, will be a brutal individual battle.
For many reasons, it feels another significant occasion in the international career of Marcus Smith. Last year’s November encounter with South Africa proved his coming out party in an England shirt, but despite starting every Test this year, the Harlequins fly half is yet to really recapture that sort of performance. Smith has been urged by his head coach this week to “be instinctive” and “play his game”, with England hoping to find the fluent, free rugby required to snatch a draw in the final ten minutes against the All Blacks without first falling so deep into a hole.
“For some reason, it’s easier to throw the kitchen sink when you are in that scenario,” outlined Jonny May, admitting that the squad were disappointed to have not found that sort of intensity at the start of games this year. “There’s a focus that comes on you because the games almost gone or you have one more shot at it, really.
“It almost liberates you. But it hasn’t just come out of nowhere. The shape we fell into is what we’ve tried to develop. It’s something we’ve been working on, and we want to tap into it when the opportunity arises.”
Wales vs Australia
The ailing and the failing meet in Cardiff for what could be a scrappy end to Wales and Australia’s tough autumn campaigns. The sword of Damocles dangles ever nearer to Wayne Pivac’s furrowed brow, with the Wales head coach’s position now said to be under serious consideration. With fewer than 10 months until the World Cup starts, now would not be the ideal time to be installing a new coach but there are strong suggestions that Pivac no longer has the faith of the Welsh dressing room after defeat to Georgia.
The low ebb in which Wales find themselves means any potential vacancy would offer a free shot to any coach who fancies a go at guiding a side into next year’s tournament – an outwardly unappealing position may have more suitors than some would think. Still, Wales have tended to produce their best performances under Pivac when facing significant pressure, and victory over Australia would surely be enough to keep the New Zealander in his job.
While Wales lose their handful of players not based in the country, the Wallabies are frailer still, cobbled together out of the debris that remain after a long year that has taken a significant toll. Australia’s injury crisis means Dave Rennie had only 25 fit and available players from which to pick - promising number eight Langi Gleeson and fly half Ben Donaldson are thrust into starting duties at key positions.