Autumn Tests don’t always seize the attention of the public, but this one should. Twickenham will stage a monstrous match on Saturday. Cancel all other plans and pay attention.
The national stadium will be turned into a melting pot of passion and power, rage and defiance when England and South Africa resume hostilities.
After the home-banker win over Tonga and the extension of a record winning run against Australia, this is the serious business for Eddie Jones’s side. This is the sharp end of the November campaign. This is the one they have been waiting for.
Eddie Jones’ England are preparing to face a strong South Africa at Twickenham on Saturday
The last time they played, England were overpowered by the Springboks in the World Cup final
A new era for England needs a statement victory to launch it in style. Jones has talked about a desire to claim a treasured ‘scalp’ on Saturday afternoon.
His squad will also be desperate to end an up-and-down 2021 — more down than up, given the fifth-place finish in the Six Nations — on a high.
If they could win this one, it would not banish the haunting memory of their World Cup final demise against the same opponents two years ago, but it would chase away some of the ghosts.
Such is the determination to turn the tables on the Boks that the England management have cultivated a theory that the South Africans see their pack as ‘weak’. Time will tell if the psychological tactic pays off.
Emotional energy won’t be in short supply before and during this game — the hosts will be urged on by a full house and they will need all of the noise and fervour that an English crowd can muster.
Those in the Twickenham stands must turn up the volume in the knowledge that Jones’s team are the clear underdogs. In the front row and back three, they are partly new and unproven — and they are still bedding in a new conductor at No 10.
England have had a good autumn (above) but will want a statement win to launch their new era
Recent history between these countries is mixed, with three wins apiece during Jones’s regime. But the World Cup defeat casts a long shadow over English hopes.
It was an emphatic endorsement of South African physicality and the local fear is that this next encounter could go much the same way.
For all the talk of the renowned Springbok Bomb Squad of menacing forward muscle on the bench, their starters are not too shabby, either. The front-row unit of Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi and Trevor Nyakane have enhanced their reputations this year.
Captain Siya Kolisi has returned to prime form, veteran Duane Vermeulen has added clout and know-how since recovering from injury, Kwagga Smith is justifying his place at openside and the lock pairing of Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager are massive, intimidating and imperious.
Anyone who can find a weakness in that pack should contact the England coaches. All ideas welcome.
The Springboks are operating at a level which makes them worthy of their world-champion status, which they weren’t when they saw off the toothless Lions in the summer.
They are missing two stalwarts in Pieter-Steph du Toit and Faf de Klerk, but they have so much firepower all over.
They also have vast motivation. The South Africa agenda is clear — win it for Rassie Erasmus. They are aggrieved at his punishment for criticising and abusing officials, and they intend to take it out on England.
It is a textbook, circle-the-wagons, us-against-the-world scenario. Outrage will drive the Boks on, at the end of a shattering year of bubble life. A sense of injustice will stoke the fires within.
As if that wasn’t enough, there is a second aspect of the motivational equation for the visitors. They have been locked out of the World Rugby annual awards.
None of their players made the shortlists, when the likes of centre Lukhanyo Am — as just one example — should have been an absolute shoo-in. They are quietly aggrieved about that, as well as the regular jibes over their ‘boring’ methods.
In midfield, Am and Damian de Allende versus Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade will be an absorbing sub-plot. England need their centres to win the gainline battle and — given the Boks’ aerial threat — novice full-back Freddie Steward to confirm the promising signs that he is a supreme asset under any high-ball barrage.
South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus (pictured, second right) will be banned from attending the match – another source of outrage and motivation for the dangerous Springboks
If England keep spilling like the Lions did, they are doomed. In the absence of Owen Farrell, Courtney Lawes must pick up where he left off against Tonga, with an inspirational captain’s performance. The good news is that the veteran Northampton forward is in the form of his long rugby life.
Marcus Smith cannot hope to circumvent the Bok blitz if the England pack don’t provide suitable ammunition, so much will rest on the ability of Bevan Rodd and Jamie Blamire — the front-row tyros — to rise to this grand, daunting occasion.
Later on Saturday night, in Paris, France’s showdown with New Zealand is being regarded as a preview of a potential 2023 World Cup final in the same city, but this fixture has the same pedigree status.
England versus South Africa is third in the world rankings against first and — at least in terms of chart position — the best of the north against the best of the south.
It is a reunion of the finalists in the last global showpiece. It is a superpower summit and should be a classic of its kind; more of a sporting volcanic eruption than an artistic exhibition, but a true Test — which is not always the case at this time of year.
The visitors should win, but the hosts could win. Whatever happens, it will be thunderous, epic and compelling. Don’t miss it.