Eddie Jones has made no secret of the fact that England will be targeting the Springboks as their biggest game of the year, and while Saturday’s match may lack the occasion and reward of a World Cup final, it will by no means lack the intensity, writes Oliver Keohane.
The Springboks beating the All Blacks in Australia in the Rugby Championship was big, but ending a 13-Test 2021 with victory against a rejuvenated England team at Twickenham, will be even bigger.
The Springboks made official their status as the best team in the world when they spectacularly beat England 32-12 to claim the Rugby World Cup in 2019. They beat an England side who had disposed of the All Blacks in the semi-final, and they beat an England side who at the time believed they just could not lose.
It has been over two years since since the two sides have met, and Saturday’s clash has the makings of a World Cup final in everything but the name. It’s a sentiment shared by Eddie Jones, who has laid down a marker for his side to reclaim the Springboks’ scalp in what will be a rugby game with the essence of a legendary boxing rematch.
“They are the World Cup champions and we are not,” Jones stated. “It an important Test and we want to finish off the autumn well — it is the final game of the autumn and we will see it as a final and we want to take them on. We will have to play differently to beat them. It’s the final game and we want to go into the Six Nations with a South African scalp.”
While England look to finish their Autumn well, South Africa are closing off the craziest of years with a game bigger than an All Blacks clash given the context of the last World Cup final.
Where a world without Covid may have given England a shot at redemption sooner following the loss in the final, the reality is that Eddie and his men have been waiting and preparing for two years to take on the Springboks again. The loss of the British & Irish Lions over July has only further compounded an anti-Springbok sentiment in the UK and many of England’s front runners have now faced defeat to South Africa in both a World Cup final and British & Irish Lions series.
England were emphatic in beating Australia – a side who were victorious in both their encounters with the Springboks this year – 32-15 over the past weekend. Equally, England faltered to Ireland, Scotland and Wales during the Six Nations at the beginning of the year.
Given the quality of England’s squad and the credentials of Eddie Jones as a coach, 2021 has been a year below par for the English, so to beat the Springboks on Saturday is a must more than a want in the minds of English coaches, players and fans. It will be a brutal battle between two sides of similar physical stature and inclination towards set-piece dominance, and the stylistic clash always makes for intense competition.
However, there is brutality too in the closure of a Springbok calendar year which has seen them spend the majority of their time in bio-bubbles and on tour, isolated from family and familiarising themselves with Test rugby following 20 months of Covid-enforced absence. The Boks went from a British & Irish Lions series, into the Rugby Championship, before coming home for a couple of weeks and heading straight up North. Their 23-18 victory over Wales broke an eight year curse that had hung over their heads in Cardiff, and a week later in Edinburgh they were clinical in doubling Scotland’s points to put them away 30-15.
The Boks need the legs for just one more week and one more battle, but it comes as their biggest Test battle of the year outside of the British & Irish Lions series, and it comes after facing two very good Welsh and Scottish sides.
While England are sweating over a potential injury to captain Owen Farrell, the hope is that he will return to take on South Africa at inside centre alongside the mercurial Marcus Smith who has been backed by Eddie to take over at No 10. There is a love affair between the world and Marcus Smith at the moment, and it won’t get much bigger for him than playing the Springboks at Twickenham, and his performance in a match of this intensity will be a good measure of where he currently is at at Test level.
Owen Farrell has historically always been a stand out performer against the Springboks, and say what you will about him he is one of the best players to have represented England in the modern era. Last weekend marked his 100th Test cap including British & Irish Lions games, and he nears 100 games for England as he sits on 94 caps.
The fairytale ending to a season in which the Springboks have recorded some phenomenal results, especially given the context of their year, will be a back to back beating of Eddie’s England, two years apart. Equally, England will feel they have to head into the Six Nations next year having redeemed themselves against the Springboks and beaten the best team in the world. Both teams believe they can win on Saturday, both teams believe they have to win on Saturday. It will be an epic encounter.
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