Heyneke Meyer has outsmarted Stuart Lancaster in the first two tests between the Springboks and England. Meyer has developed a close relationship with new captain Jean de Villiers which has helped the successful introduction of a number of new players to the intensity of test match rugby. Lancaster deserves credit however, for restoring discipline and resilience to the England squad but at times during the second test he looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights, as the Boks looked like they might run away with the game.
The Springboks blew England away in the first thirty minutes of the game in Johannesburg. That England recovered in the final quarter was a statement of the character that is developing in the squad. The humiliation which had been likely was replaced by an impressive, if ultimately unsuccessful, recovery. As in most games there were questionable refereeing decisions but the Springboks were worthy winners for the controlled ferocity of the opening quarter if nothing else.
Both teams will go into the final test in Port Elizabeth without key players. SA will be without the injured Pat Lambie and Willem Alberts, while Frans Steyn will also miss the game as he is getting married. England have made a total of six changes but will particularly miss the leadership and high work rate of injured captain Chris Robshaw and the pace of Ben Youngs.
The return of Danny Care to international rugby after well publicised personal problems hopefully confirms that his rehabilitation is complete. He will relish the prospect of starting in Port Elizabeth but will be all too aware of the scale of the task facing England. Robust New Zealander Thomas Waldrom gets his first start for England at No 8 and will expect to get a traditionally torrid South African welcome to international rugby. Alex Goode also wins his first cap at full-back while his Saracens team mate Owen Farrell will watch proceedings from the bench.
James Haskell returns to the English side after time playing in Japan and Super Fifteen. Haskell played nine games for the Highlanders this season and received two yellow cards, missing three games due to a ban for punching. This will be his first game under the Lancaster regime and he will be very aware of the change in expectations from when he last played for England at the world cup.
There are doubts about Lancaster’s wisdom in appointing Dylan Hartley as captain though, to be fair, there are few players in the starting line-up who have either the experience or the ability to take on the leadership responsibilities. The New Zealander who will captain England for the first time has a poor disciplinary record, and is only in South Africa after he received a reduced eight week ban for biting during the Six Nations game against Ireland. The ban was reduced from the IRB recommended twelve weeks thus allowing Hartley to travel.
The English team has only six players who started against Wales in the first test of the season last August. They have been hard hit by injury and Lancaster has also called time on a number of careers. England will be desperate to avoid a whitewash in South Africa though much will have been learned from the tour irrespective of results. Lancaster will announce his Elite Player Squad for next season in July and performances in South Africa will no doubt influence his decisions. With home tests against Australia, South Africa and New Zealand in November, England might struggle to regain the fourth place position in the IRB rankings which they lost to Wales last week.
If England is to have any chance of beating the Springboks on Saturday they will need cool heads, particularly in the forwards, where they can expect to be subjected to a physical battering that is uniquely South African. Hartley and Haskell will obviously be targeted by their opponents and will be judged by their ability to withstand that challenge without falling foul of Steve Walsh who will officiate. Walsh has a habit of finding himself the centre of attention and I hope that’s not the case in Port Elizabeth.