By Nick Cain
THIS tour is make or break, both for England and for South Africa. It is likely to prove pivotal to the 2019 World Cup aspirations of both nations, and that is why you can sense the raw nerves in both camps ahead of the three Test series that starts in Johannesburg on Saturday.
England are desperate for a re-boot after a systems failure which has seen Eddie Jones and his outfit going into frozen screen mode after a glitch-ridden season.
The four successive defeats the Red Rose outfit have suffered against Scotland, France, Ireland, and last weekend against the Barbarians at Twickenham, have highlighted malfunctions at the breakdown, in attack, and increasingly in defence, which have to be fixed – and fast – if England are to avoid going into freefall.
From South Africa’s perspective this tour has seen a historic landmark already, with Siya Kolisi appointed as South Africa’s first black captain by new head coach Rassie Erasmus.
What is also a landmark is that Kolisi’s elevation is considered by most seasoned South African pundits to be based on merit. The same can also be said of a Springbok long-squad of 43 selected by Erasmus which is not only among the most multi-racial ever picked, but also one in which young South African talent – much of it non-white – has been promoted.
Erasmus has said he is committed to the government target of a 50-50 white-black split in World Cup selection, and his squad for the England tour – and for the game against Wales in Washington DC – is a clear indicator of that intention.
Of the 17 uncapped players included in the squad almost half are non-white, with Cheetahs loose-head prop Ox Nche and wings Makazole Mapimpi (Sharks) and Travis Ismaiel (Bulls) all making their debuts against Wales, and lock Marvin Orie (Lions), flanker Sikhumbuzo Notshe (Stormers), scrum-half Embrose Papier (Bulls) and full-back Warwick Gelant (Bulls), among the replacements.
Those players will have high hopes of featuring at some stage in the England series, but the travel logistics dictate that the only participation they will have in Jo’burg is on the bench. The only exception is lock Pieter-Steph Du Toit, with the skipper against Wales also tipped to be in the starting pack against England.
Like all new dawns in rugby, and especially those in South Africa, how bright it is will depend on the Springboks winning.
The pressure on them to do so has increased following the losses to Ireland and Wales last autumn, and a series victory over England would be a massive boost for the new order ushered in by Erasmus. By the same token, a reverse on home soil – and the inevitable recriminations – could see the racial fissures in the Springbok camp placed under intolerable strain and become serious cracks.
As for England, there is no shortage of friction going into the tour with Jones under fire on so many fronts that the ropey defensive performance by his non-cap reserves against the Barbarians – with Chris Robshaw alarmingly under-par – was the least of his worries.
When the England coach’s training methods came under fire from Bath owner Bruce Craig – prompted when the club’s loose-head Beno Obano suffered a cruciate knee injury in England training – Jones said Craig had no business telling him how to do his job.
This was followed by a statement from Mark McCafferty, Premiership Rugby’s chief executive, that the relationship between the clubs and the England camp had hit “a roadblock” and was in danger of deteriorating.
Jones can do without this administrative spat given the magnitude of the task ahead of him in South Africa. While the jockeying for position over who is the underdog and who is the favourite going into this series is as interesting as watching grass grow, the overwhelming sense of the series being in the balance is intriguing.
To start with England’s greater experience is offset not just by home advantage, but by Erasmus bringing back five key overseas Springboks in Willie Le Roux, Faf de Klerk, Duane Vermeulen, and 2007 World Cup winners Bismarck du Plessis, and Frans Steyn.
There is also the little matter of England having to fix problems at the breakdown which are about much more than fine-tuning. On the evidence of the Six Nations, the England pack are going to have to raise their game to levels they have not reached for 18 months if the side are to return with a first series victory in South Africa.
That quest will be helped by the return of the “V Factor” – as in the Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy, being back in tandem properly in England colours for the first time since 2016.
Billy Vunipola says he expects to be ready for the first Test following a tight hamstring – caused, he admits, by NFL kicking practice – but even so he is short of game time and the hard edges provided by matchplay.
Mako, meanwhile, has developed into a force of nature, with just-retired Saracens hooker Schalk Brits warning his fellow South Africans that they are about to face the best all-round loose-head in the game.
If both Vunipolas stay injury-free they could galvanise England by bringing a physicality and gain-line and momentum that kick-starts the pack into life.
We saw Jamie George and Maro Itoje looking more like their old selves driving Saracens to the Premiership title last weekend, after seeing much flatter versions of them in the Six Nations. The only way to describe Robshaw and Joe Launchbury in the same tournament is lacklustre, and the Barbarians game indicated they are still struggling. Yet, all four are likely to start the first Test.
Dan Cole was another with an empty tank, but the Leicester stalwart’s absence gives Kyle Sinckler and Harry Williams their chance to rewrite the tight-head pecking order by seizing the day against the Springboks.
England’s reliance on the Vunipolas as their two main carriers leaves them vulnerable because at Test level it is now a requirement to have a handful of forwards who can punch over the advantage line and deliver quick ball.
If England are as laboured and lacking in dynamism against South Africa as they were in the Six Nations they have little chance of success, and the Vunipolas need more of their colleagues to step up to share the hard yards.
That way Tom Curry, who is the lone genuine No.7 in the tour squad, will be given a platform to scavenge, scrap and disrupt South Africa’s supply line.
Curry will need all the help he can get because while the Springboks may not be the force they were up front, they have some chips off the old block coming through.
The young Bulls lock RG Snyman, is being flagged as part of the Springbok 23 against England, and at 6ft 9ins and 19 stone (120 kg), and mobile with it, he is hard to ignore. The same is true of the abrasive young Sharks flanker Jean-Luc Du Preez (6ft 4ins), and a backrow which also includes Kolisi and Vermeulen has a good balance to it.
With de Klerk buzzing around at scrum-half, and with the pace to take any gaps offered him, the Springboks will look for their traditional penetration around the fringes. Added to that, with Le Roux in outstanding form in the Premiership if England’s kick-chase is not on the money the Springbok counter-attack will make them pay.
Damian De Allende and uncapped new kid on the block Andre Esterhuizen (6ft 4ins) are both big, bustling centres with an offloading game who provide South Africa with the muscle to make midfield dents on a regular basis.
This is something that England have lacked since Manu Tuilagi’s injury woes, and the project started by Jones to get Ben Te’o to fill his boots has not yet materialised – and will not do so on this tour given that the Worcester centre is now sidelined with a thigh injury.
Te’o was not been helped this season by England’s breakdown shortcomings, often looking tactically adrift, but time is running out for him to become the midfield gain-line warrior that Jones is desperately searching for.
Should Jones start George Ford at 10 he can also expect Handre Pollard, who is one of the biggest international fly-halves on the block (6ft 2in, 15st 4lb), to be hurtling down his channel at every opportunity.
A full frontal assault has always been the Springbok way, and Erasmus is unlikely to deviate from a high tempo version of it, especially if there are signs that England can be bent out of shape at the breakdown as they were in the Six Nations.
As a former Munster coach Erasmus will also not have missed the way England struggled to find answers to Ireland’s pick-and-drive strategy, or that Scotland’s success stemmed from combining their breakdown assault with quickly moving the ball out wide.
England unsettled Australia in 2016 by putting down their marker in their opening Test victory in Brisbane, and they will have to do the same in Johannesburg. From there confidence can take root again and a series victory will be within their grasp. Lose, and it will become a habit that is increasingly difficult to break.