‘There is far too much naysaying around England

Maro Itoje turned to the wisdom of a Nigerian proverb when England last lost to South Africa at a World Cup. “When a ram goes backwards it is not retreating,” he wrote on Twitter after losing the 2019 final, “it moves back to gather more strength.”

Following the retreat from Yokohama four years ago, England will hope the ram is out of hibernation and on the charge in Paris on Saturday. It had better be.

Let’s state the obvious: England will need to defy their recent (patchy, at best) form if they are to be in with the vaguest of sniffs of causing a last-four upset at Stade de France.

But let’s not forget something in danger of being overlooked with all the hullabaloo about how magnificent this Springboks side is: they are fallible and they are beatable.

Yes, they were – in many respects – ruggedly superb and surgically devastating against France. Yes, a cogent case can be made for these Springboks being stronger than those who lifted the Webb Ellis Cup four years ago. Yes, South Africa were stratospheric at times – or as David Flatman said in commentary, “mega”. But the megaton Boks and their Bomb Squad are not invincible. They were beaten by Ireland last month and would have been beaten by France, but for a charged-down conversion and France’s inability to cope with the fusillade of high balls.

The Springboks edged France in a Parisian epic on Sunday night (Photo Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images)

While it was undoubtedly a great South Africa performance, it wasn’t without its moments of doziness. The Boks were surprisingly slow to get their try-line defensive shape set in the seconds leading up to Peato Mauvaka’s score. Antoine Dupont spotted the tardiness, took a quick tap and threw the cut-out pass to put his hooker over the line. That said, Cheslin Kolbe’s charge-down of the conversion showed just how switched on South Africa can be.

The cult of the Boks – the halo of uncompromising, unmatchable physicality which has grown up around the team and become synonymous with it – can be overstated. If an opposition emphasises it too much then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; they are three-quarters-beaten before they even step on to the pitch.

Rugby is not for robots and South Africa are Boks, not bots.

There is far too much naysaying around England and this semi-final, far too much underplaying of the fact that – inch by inglorious inch – England have dragged themselves into contention in this tournament. If they can manage their demons and not let the Boks’ aura enter their collective psyche, they can have an honest crack at this one.

England need to channel some of the spirit Mike Tindall adopted before a Six Nations game against France several moons ago. Towards the end of a long international career, Tindall had the joyous task of marking the 18-stone Mathieu Bastareaud in midfield.

“How are you going to contain Bastareaud in the centres, Mike,” asked a TV reporter.

Tindall, who had pretty much seen it all on a rugby field by this point, grinned and paused a moment.

“The same way you tackle any prop,” he said.

A dose of humour and confidence in your own technique can go a long way. In the case of the upcoming semi-final, it can help neutralise the premium the Boks can accrue by opponents fearing their physical dominance before they’ve even kicked off.

Manu Tuilagi scored a muscular try as England powered past Fiji to reach the semi-finals (Photo by PA)

England need to field a big, powerful team to contend with South Africa, of course. But more important is fielding the players with the psychological strength to match them – players who have the belief they can win and that, yes, these Boks have chinks in their armour.

Rugby is not for robots and South Africa are Boks, not bots. The strain of having to prepare for a succession of big games against Scotland, Ireland and France already in this competition will have taken some emotional toll, and the experience of having to hang on for dear life against the French in Paris in a final-like contest will have been especially draining. England will need to try and exploit some of that emotional fatigue. And England, by contrast, have had a – comparatively – genteel route to the semi-finals.

Not that it’s all been plain sailing.

Against Fiji, England got the fright they needed – and the pressure they needed – to make sure they don’t go up against South Africa undercooked. Although it won’t have felt like it at the time, Fiji’s second-half fightback was just what England required: a test of their character and ability to adapt under pressure in the furnace of knock-out rugby.

Manu Tuilagi had the old fire in the eyes and the quads. And Owen Farrell fizzed some bullets to his outside backs and showed the maturity to drop a goal just when it mattered.

What gives England an iota of hope is some of their big beasts of earlier days have begun to show the spirit of Itoje’s ram. Against Fiji, Itoje himself played with more controlled urgency than we’ve seen for a while, and when he galloped forward during a first-half surge his long strides could be read as a metaphor for the progress both he individually and the team collectively have started to make.

Manu Tuilagi had the old fire in the eyes and the quads. And Owen Farrell fizzed some bullets to his outside backs and showed the maturity to drop a goal just when it mattered. Then some of the newer boys delivered, too, most eye-catchingly Ben Earl. What a blast he is having in France, making 372 metres from 48 carries and beating 17 defenders.

South Africa have shaken things up this World Cup, whether through unpredictable bench splits, whipping captain Siya Kolisi off the pitch early, or opting for a scrum after calling a mark in their own 22. England need to counter that unpredictability with some of their own; something to put the cat among the pigeons, the lions among the springboks. The England coaches, it seems, appreciate this.

“We need to work out a way of playing smart enough this week to get ourselves in this contest,” said attack coach Richard Wigglesworth. England will need to play the smartest rugby they have done in a very long time. Their rugby IQ must go through the roof.

A structured, pinpoint-accurate kicking game will be essential. England have kicked 50% more than the Boks this tournament, but there will be no margin for error against a South Africa backline that has shown itself to be blistering on the counter. Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse are rocket-fast and quick to pounce, as they showed against France. Kolbe’s stats from that game were particularly eye-popping: 317 metres with an average of 16.7 metres per carry. Do that against England and it’s likely the Red Rose will wilt faster than it did in Yokohama.

Four years ago in Japan, South Africa undid England up front and out wide. If the task was tough back in 2019, it is no less tough now. Many of that South African band of brothers remain in harness – only with more experience and, by definition, big-game know-how.

Their back-row alone is formidable, a heady brew of strength, guile, leadership and charisma: Pieter-Steph du Toit, Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen. The streetwise hustler Kwagga Smith will enter the fray off the bench. And that’s before we mention the tight five.

England were soundly beaten by a dominant Springboks side in the 2019 World Cup final (Photo by PA)

The Springboks’ belief in their scrum is worn on their sleeves. Damian Willemse’s much-talked about ploy to choose a scrum after calling a mark was not only an expression of confidence and defiance to the French. It was also the loudest of signals to the rest of the tournament: we will take you on head-to-head, tire you out and grind you into the turf. For an England pack which took a battering in the set-piece four years ago, it is enough to make you gulp very deeply indeed.

But if South Africa have the scrum flex, England have the drop-goal flex. After George Ford’s ice-cold application of the kick to see off Argentina in the first round pool matches, there was Farrell getting in on the act. And wouldn’t there be a gorgeous irony to a South Africa side being drop-kicked out of a World Cup?

The Boks, of course, are more than a scrummaging behemoth. Compared with the South Africa of four years ago, this iteration has more in its box of tricks. There is more going on behind the pack, with Manie Libbok’s distribution and bounding stride giving them a dimension that Handre Pollard – for all his formidable kicking prowess – doesn’t possess.

England’s attack may still be locating its serrated edge, but it is moving in the right direction. Tuilagi’s try against Fiji was an object lesson in smart build-up play and precise finishing.

Mind games or cap-doffing admiration? England supporters will hope it’s not the latter. Anything other than confidence will spell curtains.

But we can shoot the breeze about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two sides… and then fortune can screw it all up and lob it into the dustbin of history. Remember Kyle Sinckler’s bizarre concussion just two minutes into the 2019 final? A great front-row battle was over before it had even begun, and the dye was cast in the South Africans’ favour.

Earlier this week, Wigglesworth, the attack coach, was laying it on with the proverbial trowel when talking about the quality of England’s opposition. “We are talking about one of the best rugby teams ever, aiming to go back-to-back, who have evolved, and have had a solid coaching team for six years,” he said. “They have a core group of players and they have added quality to it. They are an impressive outfit.”

Mind games or cap-doffing admiration? England supporters will hope it’s not the latter. Anything other than confidence will spell curtains.

The ram and the Boks. Who will prevail? When the horns lock, a lot of it will be in the mind.

Source link: https://www.rugbypass.com/plus/there-is-far-too-much-naysaying-around-england-the-boks-are-beatable/




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