If England wants to advance to the Rugby World Cup final next weekend, they must get ready to experience physical discomfort and then use their heads.
Change the picture
Between 2008 and 2018, I participated in eight Test matches for England against South Africa, winning two of them—the final two. So you could say that I gradually discovered how to defeat them.
By matching their physical attributes and employing strategies or methods to get them to think and act differently, one can join the Boks. To catch them off guard, you must alter the scene. It won’t be simple, in fact, it won’t be at all simple, but England must have faith that they can win this Saturday’s World Cup semifinal.
Scrums – be smart and fast
South Africa always has a large pack, and they enjoy shoving people aside. Simply put, they have the means to be macho. Former players have informed me about a certain coach who chose his team based primarily on height and weight. So forget about playing in his back row unless you were at least 6 feet 4 inches tall and 110 kilograms or more.
The 2003 World Cup-winning pack was dubbed “white orcs on steroids” by New Zealand media, and the England pack I played in was also always rather large. I was consistently five to ten kg larger than the majority of other hookers throughout my career, and I believe this helped me stand out in the selection process because scrummaging relies heavily on weight.
The England pack of today lacks that same heft. Without a doubt, they are not little, but South Africa wins the weigh-in man for man. Therefore, England must be shrewd, play to their strengths, and use speed and dynamism while not avoiding the impending physical battle.
Here, “speed kills” is my catchphrase—in a positive manner, of course! South Africa wants a highly structured game. The fact that England prefers to play this way may be the issue here. The two teams actually employ comparable strategies. However, engaging in an arm-wrestle is not the ideal strategy if you want to defeat the Boks. The key to defeating this team is speed.
In England’s quarterfinal match against Fiji, Owen Farrell added pace, and he and his team must do the same. In order to counteract their advantages, England’s scrum-halves Alex Mitchell and Danny Care must move the ball in and out and play, especially during scrum time. If you give the Boks an unplanned or unexpected challenge, they can become frustrated that the game isn’t going as they expected. Because if you don’t make them think, they will automatically go through a drill they have practiced a hundred times and be at ease.
Kicking strategy and the aerial battle
In their thrilling quarterfinal victory over France last weekend, South Africa made good use of contestable kicks to put the French wings under pressure. Therefore, in the backfield, you must have your best players under the high ball. That made Freddie Steward an obvious choice for me because I had to pick England’s walking bomb disposal team this weekend. Then England can attempt the same in an offensive. Jonny May is a terrific example of how to kick when it counts, accurately, and to chase them like your life depended on it. Collisions, 50/50 results, and uncontrolled play are all produced by it. Once more, present a different image to the Boks and force them to reflect.
Second-guessing: the battle of wits
In addition to serving as the Boks’ head coach, Rassie Erasmus is also the team’s director of rugby. When you ask Erasmus why his team chose a scrum after marking a kick in their 22 during the match against France, he doesn’t dodge the topic; instead, he explains everything. They were concerned that they wouldn’t obtain enough scrums, and they saw no benefit in taking a standard mark from which every other side would kick 100% upfield or off the field. What at first looks like an absurd call now has meaning and clarity. Additionally, note how decisively Damien Willemse acted; this demonstrates how organized and prepared South Africa is.
Steve Borthwick, England’s head coach, will have put in extra effort as a result. We already know that he selects teams based on analysis, so he will work to avoid providing South Africa with those access points. I doubt he will order no kicks into the 22 because he worries a mark will turn into a scrum, but he will make sure the scrum is prepared for the possibility – see above! The ideal situation for England is to be so well-prepared that you can recognize during a game where the opposition is attempting to expose you and adjust.
The physical battle
I competed against and with some of the best South African players. Victor Matfield, Cobus Reinach, and Heinrich Brussow were some of my clubmates at Northampton who exemplified everything excellent about South African rugby players—nice men who played hard but were the first to have a beer with the opponents afterward. And if you talk to any South African for a while, they’ll tell you how much they adore hating the English!
The biggest obstacle for England, in my opinion, is the fact that South Africa’s version of 2023 has far more to offer than just physical prowess. In a way, putting on your tin hat and being physically back is the simple part if they just utilize one-out huge physical runners. If you don’t halt the physical conflict, their wings will be scoring in the corner, so put on your shoulder pads and man the f**k up.
People like Owen Farrell do well in that kind of environment. Remember the 2018 game at Twickenham, which we won by a point, and his legendary tackle on Andre Esterhuizen? Okay, so some folks may have mistakenly seen it as a shoulder charge, but let’s not pick apart details five years later. The point was that Owen physically attacked them, and people should also recall how crucially he stole the ball from Lood de Jager during the same game. The England team’s players loved those crucial moments, which changed the course of the game. The England team this week will be prepared for it, but you must be prepared to experience physical pain while playing South Africa and to give it to them in return.