Nick Cain looks at the challenge facing England at Twickenham next weekend

Ruan PienaarIf Stuart Lancaster thinks he’s got injury problems with Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Tom Croft on the sidelines then he should spare a thought for Heyneke Meyer. The South Africa coach is without 15 of his leading players, and any side that can lose Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis, Andries Bekker, Schalk Burger, Juan Smith, Frans Steyn, Jaque Fourie and Bryan Habana and remain competitive enough to scratch out a 16-12 win over Ireland in Dublin deserve their reputation as being the hard case of world rugby.
The depth of the South African reserves – which is matched only by New Zealand – has been demonstrated again in this autumn series by the arrival of ready-made Test animals to fill in the gaps, some of them boosting their reputations and earnings in European rugby, and others homegrown.
Getting a blend, and a discernable pattern, has not been easy for Meyer given the length of the Springbok casualty list. The selection issues he has had to contend with at scrum-half and fly-half, in particular, since his appointment before England’s tour last summer, have complicated matters further, and his middling record of five wins, two draws and three losses means that the credit he has in the bank with South Africa’s demanding supporters is dwindling.
The former Blue Bulls coach appeared to have made a landmark decision during the maiden Rugby Championship when he dropped the out-of-form veteran Morne Steyn – the No.10 who was always one of the first names on his team-sheet when he was with the Pretoria-based franchise – for the Cheetahs young gun Johan Goosen.
Goosen, 20, made a promising start, but, after a handful of caps in the Championship, he was added to the list of walking wounded for the autumn series. This allowed Patrick Lambie, 22, the multi-talented Sharks star, to add to the 18 caps he has won plugging the gaps in the backline by staking a claim at fly-half against Ireland, loosening his unwanted utility back tag.
Lambie got his chance outside Ruan Pienaar, who finally seems to have persuaded Meyer that he has more rounded scrum-half skills and greater vision than the dynamic but erratic wing-cum-No.9, Francois Hougaard. Meyer was rewarded at Landsdowne Road when Pienaar, who joined Ulster two seasons ago after sensing that he was not at the top of Peter De Villiers’ scrum-half list, not only scored the match-winning try but gave much-needed tactical shape to South Africa’s second-half comeback.
The Pienaar-Lambie partnership has had precious little time to evolve, but if it starts to click this autumn England will have good reason to be wary. Pienaar has been outstanding for Ulster, and after helping them to the Heineken Cup final last season – including thrashing Leicester along the way – he knows which English pressure points to prod. He also has an all-court game, as dangerous around the fringes as he is in finding space with his educated tactical kicking.
There is a school of thought in South Africa that Lambie is the inventive play-maker they have been waiting for, an all-round footballer of the Dan Carter mould, rather than a classic boot-before-pass Bok fly-half. Lambie looked rusty against the Irish, but if he gets the chance to bed-in rather than being shunted around the backline, his pace, deceptive strength, and handling ability could make him a handful for Toby Flood.
The English fly-half’s channel will be targetted just as it was when the Springboks smashed down it in their emphatic win at Twickenham two years ago, and Lambie will not lack for detailed advice when it comes to unlocking the Red Rose defence.
Following his stint at Leicester, not only does Meyer have the inside track on Flood, Jeff Parling, Dan Cole, Ben Youngs and Tom Youngs – including initiating his move from centre to hooker – he also has a network of informants within his tour squad with detailed knowledge of the Aviva  Premiership.
Foremost among them is Schalk Brits, the Saracens hooker whose unorthodox brilliance has lit up the Premiership for the last three years, earning him a surprise Springbok recall for the autumn series and a chance to add to the three caps he won before coming north by relieving the impressive Adriaan Strauss of some of the work-load. Hot on his heels in terms of insider information come Bath openside flanker and captain, François Louw, and Juandre Kruger.
Kruger’s time at Northampton helped to forge him into a Test lock, and, unlike against Fiji, Parling and Tom Youngs will be faced with a Springbok line-out that will not only expect to be virtually fail-safe on its own ball, but will challenge the English throw, with the former Saints man as the main interceptor. On top of that, Kruger has stepped into Victor Matfield’s boots so successfully that the driving maul remains one of South Africa’s main attacking weapons.
The rugged Louw is the Springbok ‘fetcher’ in favour, having earned a recall from Meyer during the Championship. Although the Bath man is not in the McCaw league as a pilferer, Louw is a limpet who slows opposition ball down for those crucial two or three seconds it takes for the clattering South African defence to re-align. He has the added extra of being a handy ball-carrier.

Schalk Brits
Schalk Brits

However, Brits says that shocking the Boks with intricate tactical patterns won’t be high on the England agenda when it comes to going toe to toe with South Africa: “England’s game pattern isn’t about surprises, and in that sense it’s very much like South Africa. In fact, there are not many surprises any more in Test rugby. England and South Africa both play for territory, and it will be tough, as in bone-crunching.”
Brits acknowledges that with South Africa what you see is what you get, especially when it comes to commitment and passion, and that it will be a core component regardless of who is in the Springbok line-up against Lancaster’s outfit.
“It’s hard to build teamwork quickly with a lot of new guys coming in, and quite a new pack, but the pride in playing for the Springboks is amazing to see. Rugby is like a religion back home, so the guys will give blood and guts, and sacrifice themselves for their country – and every guy here will do that. As an old hand it’s amazing to feel that vibe.”
Ask Brits what it means to be back in Springbok colours, and especially the chance to play at Twickenham, and the pride and passion are almost tangible.
“It’s special, especially because when I signed for Saracens the probabilities of me playing for South Africa again appeared to be very small. The squad environment is amazing – Heyneke Meyer has got a vision of how he wants to play, and he makes every player feel important. For me, it’s all about being involved. I thought when I came over here that I’d only ever play three Tests for South Africa, and so I promised myself when I was asked that I would really enjoy every second of being with the Springboks, whether it was carrying on water or getting the chance to play again. And I’m enjoying every moment.”
Brits says he would love to play against Sarries team-mates like Alex Goode, Brad Barritt and Mako Vunipola, although his respect for them is clear.
He is not surprised, in particular, by the speed with which Goode has acclimatised to international rugby: “Alex Goode will cause problems to any team. Two years ago he was a young pup, but he is one of those players who has just grown so much, particularly in the way he bosses the game. An example of his vision was the way he gave me a gap against Northampton recently. It is quite critical at Test level to have a fly-half who can play flat, and although Alex is a full-back he can play as a 10 as well. Things happen around him – he could go on to become a legend in English rugby.”
South Africa know Barritt pretty well from his formative years with the Sharks, and Brits does a nifty side-step when faced with the question of whether the  centre would have played for the Springboks had he stayed in SA. “The way he plays for England is pretty special,” he said. “He puts his heart and soul into it, and is a tough cookie. I guess we both know what is coming because, in general, South Africa play a very physical way too.”
Vunipola is less of a known quantity, but by promoting the young loose-head Brits sees the English glass as half-full rather than half-empty: “They always say pick a player with experience at international level, but the only way you get experience is to play. Mako has made amazing strides since last season and I congratulate the England set-up for giving a young guy time on the pitch. By 2015 he will be as good as anyone out there.”
Brits expects South Africa to have to work for every point at Twickenham, with home advantage and growing confidence shifting the goal-posts since England returned from South Africa in June with a lost two, drawn one record.
“England are growing in stature, they’re getting better with every game, and it will be tough. They are a different kettle of fish at home in front of a full house at Twickenham. It does make a difference where you play, and just as South Africa have variations in playing on the high veld or on the coast, these are different conditions. A lot of our guys will never have played in them. I can tell them what it’s like when it’s cold, wet and difficult to catch the ball, and I can give them advice. But, in the end, you’ve simply got to go out there and perform.”
Rising to the occasion is second nature to a game-breaker like Brits, and it is why he would walk into almost any other Test side. However, it is a trait he shares with his countrymen, with the Springboks seeking a fourth successive win on Twickenham’s turf against England, a side they have beaten in nine out of their last 10 meetings, with one draw.
Depleted or not, South Africa will fancy their chances of extending that unbeaten run by battering England on Saturday, and forcing the likes of Goode to play off the back foot.

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