It would not surprise me if England win a test match against South Africa, but they will have to do it the hard way. Back in 2009 South Africa beat the All Blacks in all three matches between the two nations. At the time we felt they were different to other teams. They had an edge. We decided to find out what it was that set the 2007 world champions apart.
So when South Africa invited us into their changing room after the first test in Bloemfontein, we accepted. We were keen to talk to them and understand their motivation better. What impressed us first of all was how respectful they were as people. They were very polite and they had great respect for the both the All Blacks tradition and the All Blacks group.
We then got beaten the following week in Durban and again went into the South African changing room. Back in New Zealand we lost to the Boks in Hamilton and invited them to the post match gathering with friends and family. We were getting to know them.
We were realising that the South Africans weren’t just playing for their country, but for something more. They were representing the transformation of their country. Men like John Smit, Victor Matfield, Jean de Villiers and Brian Habana were leading the way.
In New Zealand we tend to be task orientated. Yes, there is great pride in the jersey and the history, but we realised that we needed to look for something more. We had to go up a level emotionally if we were to match South Africa.
That change in focus put us on the track to the World Cup. Beating South Africa 3-0 in 2010 was a huge part of winning the Webb Ellis trophy, just as winning test matches in the Southern Hemisphere was vital to England’s success in 2003.
I played with Schalk Burger’s dad for the Southern Hemisphere against the Northern Hemisphere in 1986 and it was wonderful to get to know the son. He is tough, competitive, respectful, a great man to have a beer with. Jean de Villers is another strong, honest man. You can see their character in the Stormers.
The Chiefs beat the Bulls last week by meeting the challenge head on. That is what you have to do against South African teams. You need strong body language, good tackle technique, smart defence and a big heart or they will come straight over the top of you. And they will keep coming.
I expect South Africa under Heineke Meyer to stick to their traditional strengths against England. Not for nothing has the coach recalled Fourie du Preez from Japan. Against the Lions most of South Africa’s influential plays came from lineout drives, penalties, kick to the corner, drive again.
England should know what to expect because Meyer coached at Leicester as well as the Bulls. They can draw from that intellectual capital. South Africa have a few selection issues to resolve, particularly in the back five of the scrum, but even if the personnel changes, the tactics are likely to remain the same. Kick and drive and tackle. It is not so easy to defend, particularly as Habana is one of the best kick chasers in world rugby.
England are looking to develop their game and it will be interesting to see if they continue to offload against one of the hardest hitting defences on their home soil. If England can successfully offload more and more in the tackle, add that to their natural assets of power and defence, then they are on the way to becoming a very dangerous side. I suspect Meyer would have preferred an easier opponent to begin his coaching reign.
I also expect the home team to win, but the series will be a good measure of how far England have come and how far South Africa are prepared to go.