England’s bruising battle against Wales at Twickenham served up some valuable lessons for Rassie Erasmus and South African rugby, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Eddie Jones’s soldiers ground out a 12-6 win at Twickenham on Saturday to claim their 24th victory in 25 Tests. Afterwards, Wales coach Warren Gatland bemoaned the try that should have been, and how the TMO got a crucial call oh so very wrong. Jones commended the England players for their courage and ultimately their ability to hang on for an ugly win.
How did Erasmus rate that England performance? South Africa’s new director or rugby attended the game at Twickenham this past Saturday with the sole purpose of studying Jones’s side in action. The Springboks will host the No 2-ranked Test team in a three-match series this June.
Erasmus has already visited the South African Super Rugby teams and outlined his vision for the Boks in the short- and long-term. The tournament will commence on 17 February, and it wouldn’t surprise to see all four of those sides striving for an approach that values pragmatism as much as innovation.
Erasmus was in London on Saturday to watch and analyse England. The manner in which England went about their business, particularly in the first half, would have given him food for thought. The hosts were missing key players such as scrumhalf Ben Youngs and No 8 Billy Vunipola, yet were still physically, tactically, and mentally strong enough to repel a determined Wales side.
England were unfailingly physical at the point of contact. While they didn’t have everything their own way at the breakdown, they still managed to force defensive turnovers at key moments.
They missed 23 tackles, but most will remember the one made by Sam Underhill to deny Scott Williams a try late in the contest. The efforts of Underhill, a bloodied Dylan Hartley, and several other forwards highlighted their never-say-die attitude.
All of this would have been noted by Erasmus. The Boks have been involved in some bruising – and ill-tempered – encounters with England in the past. They won’t beat Jones’s side if they lose the gainline and breakdown battles, or if their fitness fails them in the dying stages of a contest.
Can the Bok backs handle an aerial bombardment? Do they have the tactical kickers to beat a side like England in a match where territory is result-shaping?
To say that the class of 2017 had their problems under the high ball would be an understatement. The end-of-year tour to Europe witnessed an at times comedic display in this department.
The opposition succeeded in finding space behind the defensive line all too regularly. When the ball was kicked for the opposition wingers to chase, one always got the feeling that the Bok receiver was going to come off second best. This was certainly case when the Boks played Ireland in Dublin and then Wales in Cardiff.
The All Blacks, as well as the New Zealand Super Rugby franchises, don’t get enough credit for their kicking and aerial skills. I have no doubt that the Kiwi teams will thrill with ball in hand in 2018. At the same time, I know that the respective coaches have prepared their charges to win the high ball and then run at a fractured defence.
England did this exceptionally well on Saturday. Owen Farrell looked to gain territory through a series of well-aimed grubbers and chip-kicks. Wales were outplayed in the air, as the England kicker’s accuracy was often complemented by Anthony Watson or Mike Brown’s chase.
The three-Test series in June will be played in different conditions. It’s won’t be as wet in Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, and Cape Town as it was in London last Saturday, and it won’t be so heavy underfoot.
That said, England may still come to South Africa believing that they can’t outmuscle the Boks upfront and that they can win the contest in the air. The Boks will lose the series if they don’t rise to those challenges.
Erasmus will hope that the local teams can improve against New Zealand opposition as far as results are concerned – collectively, South Africa’s sides lost 13 out of 15 matches against Kiwi teams during the conference stage in 2017. He will hope that they can succeed at the gainline and that they can win more of those high-ball contests.
A strong showing in these departments over the next few months will give Erasmus and indeed all South African fans good reason to believe that a series win against Jones’s England is likely.
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