Springboks only one percent off being the team to beat

Given that the 45th test between South Africa and England is at Twickenham and outside the international window, the hosts will go in as favourites. For me, the timing of this test match is bitter-sweet because you always want whoever is available to run out.

Nevertheless, the Springboks have selected a strong side. In the backline, while the Boks have backed Damian Willemse at No.10, it was fantastic to see Manie Libbok’s performance against Italy.

He didn’t seem at all fazed and showed some really good skills, particularly passing out of hand. The more time a player of his stature gets at this level, the better. Jacques Nienaber has stated that Manie is second in line for the No.10 jersey and I think it’s right for any coach to say to someone new: “You’ve got to work hard and bide your time.” It might come quicker to some owing to injury or reshuffling of backlines but Libbok has put his best foot forward. He can rest assured that the coaches are sitting secure in the knowledge that they have got him to call on if need be.

Video Spacers
Video Spacers

In terms of the halfback battle, Jack van Poortvliet and Marcus Smith line up against Faf de Klerk and Willemse. Van Poortvliet has been quite a revelation for Leicester Tigers and England and it will be fascinating to see how he does against the more experienced De Klerk, who has 45 test caps, and how the pair will approach this game. As far as Smith is concerned, he’s definitely proven that he’s a match winner at club level and the last time England faced the Springboks, he slotted the winning penalty at Twickenham.

It was interesting to hear Jacques say this week that he “doesn’t know whether we will ever get respect.” There won’t necessarily be universal respect in terms of the Bok game plan because everyone wants to see the ball going through the hands and tries being scored.

However, I do believe there’s a lot of respect out there in terms of how the Springboks achieve what they need to achieve. I think there is a subtle difference and it’s more the game plan that in many ways is not respected versus the Springboks as an entity. I think the team is respected but it’s the type of game that armchair critics don’t necessarily respect. From a coaching point of view, the Boks have to block out the white noise and it’s clear the team knows what they are trying to achieve down to the very minor detail. They believe it, follow it and the proof is in the pudding. Yes, we have fallen short in two test matches against numbers one and two in the world but I firmly believe that we’re only one percent off from being the team to beat.

Turning to England, their ability to come away with a draw against New Zealand last week, when they seemed dead and buried, says a lot about their resilience. Under Eddie Jones, the English have worked on how they want to approach games and whenever they come up against the Springboks, they always talk it up and say that they are equally as physical. England will aim to match and even supersede that physical onslaught and be the aggressors. I’m sure Eddie will be the one pushing that as hard as possible. It will be all about the collisions and England will also be out to stop the barrage of mauling and aim to spread the Bomb squad that is set to be thrown their way.

It doesn’t surprise me that Eddie has been outspoken in the media leading up to the game. I know Eddie well from my time at Saracens playing under him and he is no stranger to mind games off the field. However, he is such a seasoned coach and will come in with a specific plan. Eddie might say that this is the test the Boks would have been looking to target on their end of year tour but, for me, they would have targeted each game and there would have been a plan beforehand in terms of who we were playing. Make no mistake, the Bok ambition is to go out there and win every test match.

While the Springboks only have one win from three matches on the ongoing November tour, in recent weeks they have shown us something that we haven’t seen in some time. We have to give credit where it’s due because they have moved the ball around very well. They exposed Italy’s defense last week – scoring nine tries – and the week before against France to some extent as well. I don’t know if it’s a long-term plan and will continue but it’s been good to see the Boks poke holes and play some ambitious rugby.

In terms of the Rassie Erasmus saga, it’s not the first incident so I don’t think the Springbok squad are strangers to the controversy surrounding the team. I have no doubt that the Boks will be able to put it aside and focus on the match against England.

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