Stuart Lancaster’s well-rested England squad face the overworked Springboks in South Africa this weekend (Image | Getty)

England haven’t won against South Africa in the last seven matches and their last encounter was a bruising 11-21 beating at home in November 2011. Their last victory away in South Africa was in 2001 and they have not won a series victory in the modern era. However, the Stuart Lancaster revolution has seen England strutting with newfound confidence and the word from inside the camp is that they believe they can carry on their winning form from the Six Nations.

If there’s ever a good time to go to South Africa, then England may have picked it. Several key Springboks retired from test duty after the World Cup, included the feared second row combination of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, and the new coach Heyneke Meyer has had very little chance to impose his structures on his new team. The ‘Boks have had only two training sessions and the majority of the squad were playing in the Super 15 last weekend, leaving them open to accusations of being underprepared and overextended.

In contrast, England have the rare luxury of being rested and nearly at full-strength.

Usually the June overseas tours are preceded by player after player dropping out through injury, as debates rage over fixture congestion and lack of concern for player welfare. This year, the only frontline absentees are Tom Croft, Tom Wood and Courtney Lawes. They will all be missed, but it is the smallest injury list England have had in years.

If that wasn’t strange enough, half of the England squad finished their domestic season three weeks ago and have been in camp since. The other half joined them after the Premiership final a fortnight ago and they have been acclimatising in South Africa for the past week and a half. They’ve even had the luxury of a warm-up game for some of the players against the Barbarians.

Compared to the five days of preparation that Meyer is getting with his team, Lancaster clearly has the whip-hand. However, Meyer has responded by naming a team full of club combinations and with a simple and direct game plan. This South African side will look to brutalise England upfront, use the big boot of Francois Steyn to ensure that the game is played in the opposition half and the accurate boot of Morne Steyn to kick penalties and ensure the scoreboard ticks over. It might not be pretty, but it’s highly effective and this Springbok side has the players to pull it off. Just because England know what’s coming doesn’t necessarily mean that they can do anything stop it.

One half of South Africa’s kicking duo, Morne Steyn will be crucial once again to South Africa’s gameplan (Image | The Sun)

Lancaster’s selection bears the legacy of the Six Nations campaign that won him the permanent job as England coach. Eleven of the team who started against Ireland are selected, including fly-half Owen Farrell who many would have dropped for the experienced head and attacking play of the now-fit Toby Flood. The major tactical surprise is the selection of full-back Ben Foden on the left wing. It’s a position almost entirely unfamiliar to him, but could be a tactical masterstroke to counter the long-kicking game of the Springboks. Having two full-backs on the pitch could stifle South Africa’s gameplan, but it could leave England struggling if Foden is even slightly uncomfortable in his new position.

Weak links:

For South Africa, captain Jean De Villiers is not usually picked out as being a weakness. However, he is an accomplished inside centre being pushed wide to accommodate Francois Steyn. His defensive alignment will be sorely tested against the powerful running of England’s Manu Tuilagi.

For England, the lineout will be a worry. Their selection has left them devoid of a natural jumper in the back row and lock Mouritz Botha is not noted for his work in the lineout. Geoff Parling will have his work cut out on England’s ball and there’s no doubt that they will be far less dangerous to South Africa’s ball than they would be if either Tom Wood or Tom Croft were fit.

Strengths:

Francois Steyn is the man who could make South Africa tick. Back in his preferred slot of inside centre, he has a boot like a howitzer and can easily launch the ball deep into opposition territory. If England give away the ball easily, then they will spend most of the game trapped in their own half.

England “Captain Fantastic” Chris Robshaw is coming off an unbelievable season. Elevated to the captaincy on only his second cap for his country, the flanker has risen to every challenge set to him. In fantastic form, a natural leader and surely still buzzing from taking Harlequins to their maiden league title.

New faces to keep an eye out for:

Eben Etzebeth has big boots to fill. The Springbok second row partnership of Botha and Matfield played together for an unrivalled 62 matches and terrorised world rugby. Now both are unavailable to South Africa and the 20 year old must step up. He was a star in the Junior World Cup, has excelled in his first Super Rugby season and must make sure to carry his form into his first international cap. Tall, quick and powerful – he will worry England in the lineout and the loose.

Another face from Harlequins, Joe Marler attracted attention with startling mohicans of varying colours; not the customary style for a prop forward! Thankfully the 21 year old has the talent to back up his colourful image. There used to be worries about his scrummaging, but masterful performances against Mujati and Dan Cole in the Premiership semi and final have erased those. Loves carrying and expect to see him smashing into the Bok defence.

Prediction:

South Africa are rebuilding and the short turnaround between Super Rugby and this test will hamper them. This is England’s opportunity to lay down a marker for the series and, if they don’t get trapped into playing to the Springbok strengths, they can edge out a win.

England by 3.

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