IF YOU were to believe the London broadsheets, the only international that matters this weekend is being staged at Twickenham. Their concentration on this game is understandable.
New Zealand are the world champions, unbeaten in 2013, and the last defeat they suffered was at Twickenham 12 months ago. Moreover England have let it be known that they hope and intend to finish this season as the second-ranked team in the world. This is a high ambition. To achieve it I think they would not only have to win at Twickenham this afternoon, but go on to win the Six Nations and perhaps bring off the Grand Slam. So the stakes are high – for both teams.
England are, one has to admit, unusual. Over the last decade since they won the World Cup, they have a better record against the Big Three from the southern hemisphere than Wales, Ireland or Scotland. But their Six Nations record is comparatively poor, and back in March they folded ignominiously in Cardiff when they had the chance of the title and indeed a Grand Slam. That match suggested that they have neither the nerve nor the nous to know how to win when it really matters. Their performance was utterly feeble and they didn’t recover the respect they lost on the field by whining about Steve Walsh’s refereeing of the scrum. Nevertheless they have a chance this afternoon if, as is possible, they achieve dominance up front; and if they fail, well, they’ve had lots of injuries, and are without their best loosehead, Alex Corbisiero, and, arguably, all four members of the three-quarter line Stuart Lancaster might wish to field.
Actually events at Murrayfield tomorrow should interest the London media, because England’s ambition to rise in the rankings would be well served if Scotland were to beat South Africa, currently rated the second-best team in the world. Most outside the Scottish camp will think this unlikely, especially those who judge that we took rather too long to subdue Japan last week, achieving dominance only when they were down to 14 men (on the other hand, both the offences for which Japanese players were yellow-carded were committed to stop probable tries, even a certain one when the full- back prevented Sean Lamont from scoring).
Our present position is interesting and a bit unusual. The Lions selection, however controversial, indicated that we may have no really top-class players, Richie Gray being the only Scot to get on to the field in a Test, and then as a second-half substitute. Yet the fact that Scott Johnson has made half-a-dozen changes without noticeably weakening the side – even though Matt Scott’s absence through injury is disappointing, as is Stuart Hogg’s – does suggest that we have an unusual number of players of true international quality.
There’s nobody in the squad now who has you muttering “what on earth is he doing in an international?” and this hasn’t always , or indeed often, been the case in the past. So it will be no surprise if, whatever the result tomorrow, there are another half-dozen changes for the Australia game.
This is fine, but at some point you have usually to decide on what is your best starting XV and give it a chance to play regularly. Probably we will never get back to the consistency which allowed us in the amateur days to win a Grand Slam in 1984 with a team that was changed only on account of injury. But it is worth remarking that there were very few changes in the Welsh starting line-up last season when they were the Six Nations champions. Tinkering coaches are rarely successful ones. Of course it is much easier to stick to a team if you are winning, but sometimes it’s wise to do so even if you have lost a match or two.
As to our chances, everyone will recognise that day-in day-out South Africa are a better team. Their recent record is good – against everyone except New Zealand the only team to have beaten them in the last year, whereas in 2013 our record reads: played 9, won 4, lost 5. Nevertheless, though we lost away to South Africa in the summer, we led in that match for a long time and, rather surprisingly perhaps , we are the last northern-hemisphere team to have defeated the Springboks – 21-17 at Murrayfield in 2010. Dan Parks kicked six penalties and dropped a goal that day; South Africa scored one try. Past results mean nothing, of course, but it is worth remarking that that Scottish win followed a 49-3 thumping at the hands of the All Blacks.
By bringing back Gray and Jim Hamilton at lock, Scott Johnson has picked a pack in part designed, one would think, to counter and check the Springboks’ rolling maul, something Wales were unable to do last week. The selection of John Barclay at seven suggests we are going to compete at the breakdown, slowing down possession when South Africa take the ball into the tackle, and perhaps securing the odd turnover. As usual much will depend on how the referee, Jerome Garces, polices this part of the game. But, if we compete effectively in these two areas, and our midfield defence is secure, we have a chance; not perhaps an evens chance, but still a fair one.