The All Blacks have left town but a team with an even better record against England have replaced them in London. While South Africa came unstuck against opponents wearing white jerseys in Dublin at the weekend, the Springboks have not lost to the English for eight years. In the past 11 matches, South Africa have won 10 and drawn one.
It makes them absolutely the last opponents on Earth England would wish to be facing in a week when they urgently need a victory. No wonder the England team meeting on Monday morning was a notably honest one with a number of home truths articulated. This is not the time to be shilly-shallying or simply hoping for the best.
It is not an ideal moment, then, for Stuart Lancaster to be weighing up yet another experiment in midfield. He was hoping Owen Farrell, Kyle Eastmond and Brad Barritt would supply all the weekend answers but it did not pan out that way. Eastmond performed well enough against New Zealand but could not supply the extra kicking option ideally needed to reduce the pressure on Farrell and Danny Care when the second-half rain arrived. With Eastmond now affected by a stomach ailment, more chopping and changing could yet be required.
With Luther Burrell still out of the equation with a hand problem, Lancaster has two alternative scenarios if Eastmond does not recover swiftly. One is to reinstate Billy Twelvetrees, omitted completely from the 23 for the New Zealand game, the other to bring in George Ford at 10 and shuffle Farrell into the centre alongside his fellow Saracen Barritt.
Both would offer more kicking variety than England could muster against the All Blacks, with Lancaster making no attempt to mask his disappointment: “Our kicking game wasn’t good enough and put us under some pressure. One of the key messages this morning was about making sure we make good decisions to relieve pressure between our 22 and the halfway line. We ended up in the position of having Danny Care, Mike Brown and Owen Farrell in the breakdown or on the edges. We need to manage those periods better.”
It has to be said, though, that things did not radically improve in terms of back–line fluency when Ford and Farrell were on the field together in the latter stages. Ford is improving all the time but a first Test start against a fired-up, supremely physical Springbok side really would be a tough ask for the Bath fly-half.
Hence Lancaster’s reluctance to make a hasty call. “The question in my mind is: do you give the players another opportunity to improve on that performance, because there is a lot of frustration?” he said. “But we have the Kyle question and I also want to see how the next two days play out. By close of play on Tuesday we need to have made our mind up.”
By that stage Lancaster should also have a clearer idea about the fitness of Courtney Lawes and Dylan Hartley, both victims of head knocks at the weekend, and whether Billy Vunipola has done enough in training to keep Gloucester’s Ben Morgan out of the starting lineup. Among the players, either way, there is already a serious desire to dish out the same kind of punishment Ireland managed to inflict on the Springboks.
The Harlequins prop Joe Marler also accepts the players underperformed in the second half against New Zealand. “We knew what we had to do in that second half. We spoke about it at half-time then came out and did the opposite. I can’t speak for everyone but from a personal point of view it’s important to take that frustration into the weekend to spur you on that little bit more.
“It’s about having the belief that we’re not just capable of hanging in there against them but can ramp it up ourselves at the right time and take them to some darker places.
“Against every international team at the moment you’ve got to be physical otherwise you’re going to get pumped but South Africa as a nation stand very tall and proud. Their DNA is to run hard and, if that doesn’t work, to run harder. They pride themselves on that.”