Twickenham will decide where Boks stand
End of year tours get a lot of bad press these days, and much of it is warranted, but in terms of what it could mean to the Springbok season, Saturday’s final test of the year against England at Twickenham could not have provided a more perfect ending to the script.
Forget the statistic that the Heyneke Meyer supporters will throw at you.
Yes, there have indeed only been three defeats suffered by the Boks so far in Meyer’s first year in charge. But there have also been two draws, and considering one was a home clash against England and the other was against Argentina, both of those should be seen as negative results.
The Boks should be expected to beat England at home, and they should also be expected to beat Argentina, regardless of where they play. The statistics in both instances warrant such expectation -- they have seldom lost to England in South Africa, and never to Argentina playing as Argentina anywhere.
So that effectively leaves Meyer with six wins in 11 starts going into the Twickenham game. That means the result on Saturday will determine whether he ends with a positive balance from this first year in charge or just breaks even, the latter turn-out being a sub-standard one by Bok standards.
Meyer himself has already stated that he sees this game as the defining one of his first year, and rightly so. A loss, the first the Boks would have experienced since the first test here in London back in 2006, will be a setback for the reason outlined above, whereas victory will both ensure a positive end to the year as well as a positive return in terms of matches won. Seven out of 12 compares fairly favourably with the record of previous Bok coaches, whereas the six out of 12 doesn’t.
But there is more to this final game than just the mathematics of win percentages. Even more meaningful, in terms of Meyer’s grand plan, is to measure the performance of the Boks in November against that produced against the same opponents back in South Africa in June.
It wasn’t by design, but Meyer should be pleased that the fixture list has provided him with such an easy measuring stick of his team’s progress through 2012. The Boks won 2-0 in South Africa, with the final game the draw, but with the exception of the first-half performance at Coca-Cola Park, it wasn’t so emphatic.
So a win at Twickenham, any win and by any score, would represent some sort of progress in a forward direction, and would give some substance to Meyer’s claim that his men are learning and developing as a team.
The team has changed of course, certainly since the early tests of the series, before it became a dead rubber. Bismarck du Plessis has been lost to injury, so has Frans Steyn. Andries Bekker wasn’t available back then, and although he came back during the Castle Rugby Championship, he is absent again. Beast Mtawarira is also out, and so is Bryan Habana.
POINTS TO PROVE
With Morne Steyn also having lost form since June, and Meyer deciding that Ruan Pienaar is a better bet as a scrumhalf at this stage than Francois Hougaard is, there really is little similarity between the side that started the Meyer tenure at Kings Park and the side that will play on Saturday.
But that is just the point -- if this Bok team can win against the same England team that troubled them at home in an away game, that would be measurable progress. It would both give Meyer some much needed breathing space as he heads into his second season in charge as well as give the Bok coach some assurance about where he is headed.
So much has been written and said about Patrick Lambie that it almost doesn’t bear repeating how important this game is for the Sharks back.
There will be many Super Rugby games, and thus a lot of water flowing under the bridge, before the national team next sees action, but a strong match-winning performance from Lambie will certainly advance his cause considerably.
The loose trio, with Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen bringing the balance that was so sorely lacking against these opponents back in June, should be a foregone conclusion, but the players at loosehead prop, hooker and No 5 lock all have individual points to prove ahead of next year, assuming of course that Beast, Bismarck du Plessis and Bekker will be back in the mix.
Even skipper Jean de Villiers could have his future resting on this match.
He was much better at Murrayfield last week than he has been in ages, but Frans Steyn should be available to challenge for the No 12 next season.
Perhaps the only players not under pressure to perform individually outside of Eben Etzebeth, Jannie du Plessis, the loose-forwards and Pienaar are wing Pietersen, who was a star against England in June, and Hougaard, with the latter already having decided that he doesn’t want to be considered in the left wing position he plays on Saturday.
The Boks have had a good run against England at all venues over the last 10 matches, but England definitely started closing the gap last time the sides met. At home they will be tough, but the big ball runners such as Willem Alberts and the sheer physicality of the psyched-up Etzebeth should give the Boks a narrow edge.
The South Africans should be expected to win, but it won’t be by as much as in the last two visits to Twickenham.
England: Alex Goode, Chris Ashton, Manu Tuilagi, Brad Barritt, Mike Brown, Toby Flood, Ben Youngs, Ben Morgan, Chris Robshaw (capt), Tom Wood, Geoff Parling, Joe Launchbury, Dan Cole, Tom Youngs, Alex Corbisiero.
Replacements: David Paice, Dave Wilson, Mako Vunipola, Mouritz Botha, James Haskell, Danny Care, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Joseph.
South Africa: Zane Kirchner, JP Pietersen, Juan de Jongh, Jean de Villiers (capt), Francois Hougaard, Patrick Lambie, Ruan Pienaar, Duane Vermeulen, Willem Alberts, Francois Louw, Juandre Kruger, Eben Etzebeth, Jannie du Plessis, Adriaan Strauss, Gurthro Steenkamp.
Replacements: Schalk Brits, Heinke van der Merwe, Pat Cilliers, Flip van der Merwe, Marcell Coetzee, Elton Jantjies, Lwazi Mvovo, Jaco Taute.
Kick-off: 4:30pm SA time.
Prediction: Boks to win by 6.