England in 'awe' of South Africa, but not fearing them ahead of Saturday's semifinal on TSN
So, it’s those Springboks once again for England at the Rugby World Cup.
The team that has handed the English more painful losses — physically and metaphorically — than anyone else on the sport’s biggest stage.
The team that beat them in two of the last four World Cup finals, in 2007 and 2019.
The team whose flyhalf, Jannie de Beer, drop-kicked them out of the tournament in the 1999 quarterfinals.
The team that has handed them their biggest ever World Cup defeat — 36-0 in the pool stage in 2007.
Do they have a score to settle when they renew their Rugby World Cup rivalry with South Africa in the semifinals in Paris on Saturday? Too right.
And England knows exactly how hard the task will be.
“They are a running threat, they are a kicking threat, they have got an incredible set-piece, they have got an unbelievable defense,” England defense coach Kevin Sinfield said. “Do you want me to keep going?”
Sinfield was informed this week that England had the best tackle success rate of the teams in the quarterfinals, at 86%. He wasn’t aware, he claimed, and he barely raised a smile at it.
“If we are going to be anywhere near South Africa at the weekend, that number needs to be massively increased,” Sinfield said.
Their bodies sore, no doubt, from a draining quarterfinals win against Fiji on Sunday, England’s players sat down in their team hotel a few hours later to watch the France-South Africa match in the last eight in Paris.
It was an instant classic, especially the first half that took the breath away.
“We saw the game,” Sinfield said, “... and were in awe of the physicality that they brought.”
Respect for the Boks, then, is high among the England squad.
Just don’t mistake it for fear.
England’s confidence has been rebuilt on the back of its run to the semifinals. It is the only unbeaten team in this Rugby World Cup, chiefly due to a kind draw that has seen Steve Borthwick’s team avoid all of the world’s top five in the pool stage and quarterfinals.
There was a defiance to Borthwick after the 30-24 victory over Fiji as he faced some of the media which, he said, predicted a pool-stage exit for England. He stared down one journalist and shook his head after a line of questioning about proving the doubters wrong.
“I don’t care what people think of us,” Borthwick said. “I care about the development of the team.
“I said the team would be ready for Sept. 9. The team was ready for Sept. 9. The team has built through the tournament. There’s a team packed full of talented players who perform on the big occasion and what they’ve done is perform on the big occasion.”
It’s also what the meticulous Borthwick needs to do this week as he prepares for the biggest match of his coaching career.
“Steve is superhuman in terms of preparation, in terms of plans,” England No. 8 Ben Earl said. “It never surprises me that everything is completely in hand.
“We just get told the plan and we bring it to life.”
The problem is, you can plan all you want against the Boks. But it’s hard to stop pocket-rocket winger Cheslin Kolbe, to get through the midfield defense of Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel, to overpower a pack led by Eben Etzebeth and then deal with the “Bomb Squad” off the bench.
Much of the talk about South Africa is its physicality and defense, yet the Boks have won 11 of their last 13 test matches while averaging 4.8 tries per game.
“It would be quite easy for us,” Earl said, “to be completely blown away by how good they are.”
England looks set to bring back Freddie Steward at fullback in place of Marcus Smith, who ended the Fiji game with a fat top lip and a blood-splattered face.
Picked for his broken-field running against Fiji, Smith — naturally a No. 10 — is inferior to Steward under the high ball — a tactic South Africa is sure to use more than the Fijians in a bid to win the territorial battle.
“Clearly he was disappointed, as anyone would be, missing out on a quarterfinal, but he’s responded as we’d expect him to,” Sinfield said of Steward.
“Our team has changed every game throughout the World Cup and Steve selects the team he thinks will give us the best chance of winning that game. Just because Fred wasn’t selected last week doesn’t mean he does anything wrong.”
England could have as many as eight starters who began the 32-12 loss to the Springboks in the final four years ago. That game had been hard to call, with England coming off a stunning win over New Zealand in one of the semifinals and South Africa edging Wales by three points in the other.
The final proved to be something of a blowout and few will be betting against the Boks this time round.
“We have got a new group of players now who are quite happy to leave that in the past,” said England lock Ollie Chessum, who wasn’t in the team in 2019, “and focus on what we can do as this new England group.”