Springboks captain Siya Kolisi (C) carries the Web Ellis Cup through the crowd upon the team’s arrival at the O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on November 5, 2019. (Photo by Phill Magakoe / AFP)

Springboks look to land on-field knockout blow to Home Nations and World Rugby

‘Control the narrative before the narrative controls you.’

In an age of internet deep fakes, vaccine misinformation and Fake News Media you would not be alone if you occasionally doubted your own sanity in 2021. 5G, Lizard People and Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s fertility are mere footnotes in a year and reality that have left people scratching their heads to the point of complete apathy over the past 20 months. When the Springboks face England at ‘fortress’ Twickenham on Saturday the flames that were ignited between the British Isles and South Africa in May threaten to become an inferno. Both sets of fans will be baying for blood.

This ultimate grudge match takes place in the eye of the storm of a curiously timed landmark verdict reached by World Rugby against the South African Rugby Union (SARU) and its Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus. The verdict relates to their collective mutiny against the sport’s governing body six months ago. It is centred around the circumstances around Erasmus’ leaked video questioning Nic Berry’s handling of the first British and Irish Lions test. It reads as an attempt to throw a drenched Twickenham worth of mud at a wall and punishing that same mud for not sticking.  The verdict, banning Erasmus from any rugby related activity for two months and any match day involvement until September 2022 (another curious timeframe) has been summarily appealed by SARU and Erasmus but will stand in the meantime. If the Boks are tired, they aren’t showing it. Their victory over Scotland was more emphatic than the 30-15 scoreline suggests but would have taken a heavy toll physically and mentally.

Making a martyr of Erasmus may backfire on World Rugby and the verdict will give the fatigued Boks all the impetus they need to put in one more brutal performance before the season ends.

Etzebeth v Itoje rematch has fans licking their lips

If the verdict against Erasmus and SARU was nothing personal, the Boks being ghosted by World Rugby for its end of season awards would be argued not to be either. It must either be interpreted as a snub of the South Africa’s players, coach and results or an admission by the panel that the Boks have now reached a level that makes their dominance expected.

Their coach, Jacques Nienaber was typically diplomatic in his response when asked about the lack of nominations for his players, team and himself. “In terms of the nominations, obviously we trust and respect the process to get to the nominations,” Nienaber said.

“If you look at all the nominations, I am talking coaches, I am talking players and women’s rugby, the quality around all sections is tremendous. We are very happy for the guys who were nominated. Some of our players in the past have been nominated and it was very special for them. We wish all the nominees the best of luck with the process.”

Magnanimity aside, the South African players will no doubt take some motivation from the lack of recognition from those in control of the sport. Centres Lukhanyo Am and Damian de Allende as well as talismanic skipper Siya Kolisi will feel aggrieved and will look to lay down a marker at the so called ‘Home of Rugby’ on Saturday after excellent seasons.

The match up and story to look out for, however, will be the battle between the two teams’ imposing locks, Maro Itoje and Eben Etzebeth. Itoje has been nominated for the World Player of the Year despite England finishing fifth in the Six Nations and very little club rugby played for Saracens this season after their relegation from the English Premiership. Similarly to Australia’s Samu Kerevi it seems he has been nominated as a reward for a strong performance in a victory over the Boks. The British and Irish Lions bruiser was imperious in their opening test victory over the Springboks, deservedly winning the Player of the Match award. Etzebeth grew in stature throughout the series and if the battle was lost in the first test, the war was won over the next two. The Western Province legend has played the best rugby of his career in 2021 which is no mean feat in a career characterised by consistency. He was the best player on the pitch against Scotland last weekend and will be fired up once more. Discipline will be as important as it was in the Lions series.

Pressure on Proudfoot against his old team

As is always the case at Twickenham much will depend on the set piece. England dominated the toothless Australians in the scrums of their 32-15 win last Saturday. Under the tutelage of former South African forwards coach, Matt Proudfoot the English pack has improved but they will face a much sterner test against his old charges. The heartwarming embrace after the 2019 World Cup Final between Proudfoot and Duane Vermeulen characterised that Bok team’s togetherness. Vermeulen, the Bok defensive organiser said this will count for little on Saturday though.  “Obviously, he knows me personally and knows my way of thinking, what I am playing for and what I stand for as a person. We will be playing against the players he coaches, not coming up against him.

“There might be a trick or two up our sleeves and there might be a trick or two up England’s sleeves. You never know, we can only see that on the day. You never know what’s coming.” The Boks will need to be wary of England’s scrum and maul on Saturday even if Vermeulen brushed off any history. The South Africans massacred Scotland at scrum time but England will be ready and the ever-wily Eddie Jones along with Proudfoot will no doubt spring a host of set piece traps for the Boks. Impressive young prop Ellis Genge has been ruled out with Covid but Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler will want to show their worth in the scrum.

Farrell’s injury creates intriguing backline duel

Despite their comfortable win last weekend England’s backline struggled to get going. The heir apparent to Owen Farrell’s crown, Marcus Smith started at flyhalf and was solid but unspectacular. Farrell provided stability at inside centre but did not offer much else. The veteran hobbled off late in the match and will not be fit to play his role of pantomime villain against the Boks. His goalkicking will be missed, but his absence means the brutally direct Manu Tuilagi moves from the wing to 12. With the underrated Henry Slade at outside centre the 22-year old Smith will have exciting runners to hit if his forwards can wrestle some dominance.

The Springboks have made some changes of their own, reinstating Cobus Reinach and Handré Pollard to the starting line-up. Both players appeared in South Africa’s last victory at Twickenham in 2014 (along with Willie Le Roux) with Reinach displaying his pace to score a wonderful try just after halftime. Reinach’s experience in the Northern Hemisphere will be invaluable in what should be a tight match. If Pollard can put in a commanding performance it will give him a massive lift after a difficult season. A former prodigy himself, South Africa’s World Cup winning flyhalf will look to show why he is the highest paid flyhalf in the world.

It might be a war of attrition. There may be some disputed calls. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot will drown out any expat fans in the stadium and Siya Kolisi’s team will need to repeat their 2019 World Cup Final performance to beat a fiercely determined English side. Should they do this no amount of obfuscation from the powers that be will alter what the world rankings would confirm. The Springboks would once again rule the roost.

England:

15 Freddie Steward, 14 Joe Marchant, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Jonny May, 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Ben Youngs; 1 Bevan Rodd, 2 Jamie Blamire, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 4 Maro Itoje, 5 Jonny Hill, 6 Courtney Lawes (c), 7 Sam Underhill, 8 Tom Curry.

South Africa:

15 Willie le Roux, 14 Jesse Kriel, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Cobus Reinach; 1 Ox Nché, 2 Bongi Mbonambi3 Trevor Nyakane, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 5 Lood de Jager, 6 Siya Kolisi, 7 Kwagga Smith, 8 Duane Vermeulen.

Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)

Kick off time: 17:15

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