England copy South Africa’s tactics with help from ex-Scotland prop

“Look at who won the World Cup,” Eddie Jones said yesterday, and as England’s spiky head coach generally prefers to be ahead of the curve, not chasing after it, you had to take note.

England forwards coach and former Scotland prop Matt Proudfoot previously worked with world champions South Africa. Picture: David Rogers/Getty
England forwards coach and former Scotland prop Matt Proudfoot previously worked with world champions South Africa. Picture: David Rogers/Getty

The winners in Japan last November were South Africa, of course, and the losers in the final were England, and the topic at hand was Jones’s selection of a six-two split of forwards and backs on the bench to face Scotland in Edinburgh tomorrow.

It was a ploy used with stunning success by the physically powerful South Africans, whose philosophy for being able to freshen up the entire front five and a loose forward at the expense of cover in the backs was two-fold: an attempt to dominate the opposition who might be smaller in stature, obviously, but also a nod to those opponents wanting to open the game up in wide-ranging style, with the risk that bigger forward defenders might get tired late in the first and second halves. A template for Murrayfield is not hard to spot – all the more so with the teeming rain and gales of Storm Ciara predicted for around kick-off.

Jones was aghast at his team making 14 visits to France’s 22 in last Sunday’s loss in Paris with only two individual tries by Jonny May and Owen Farrell’s last-minute penalty to show for it. A lack of dynamic power was evident as England played their first match since the World Cup, which was also their first with Matt Proudfoot as forwards coach since Jones hired him from, guess who, South Africa. “There is a lot to improve,” Proudfoot, the South African-born former Scotland prop, said of the England scrum on Wednesday. “I would like them to be more aggressive, I would like them to be more powerful, I would like them to be more confident.”

Jones has used the six-two split just four times in his 51 Tests as England coach, all in wins: against Italy in the Six Nations in 2016, in the second and third Tests on tour in Australia the same year, and in the dead-rubber third Test in South Africa in 2018. On those past occasions he had a back-three player on the bench: variously Alex Goode, Elliot Daly and Denny Solomona; this time he has scrum-half Ben Youngs and centre Ollie Devoto as the two backs. Francois Louw, the Springbok flanker who plays for Bath, was central to the thinking of Proudfoot and South Africa’s head coach Rassie Erasmus in the World Cup, as he made five impactful appearances as a replacement. “We had a buzz phrase around us on the bench, which was the ‘bomb squad’,” said Louw. “It was an inside joke that became more prevalent when Rassie started selecting a six-two bench – not seeing ourselves as reserves or subs but rather as players that can turn the game around, or win the game, or hang on there for a final ten minutes and secure a victory.”

The big question for England is whether their individual players can handle the inherent risk. Jones said: “I can’t think of a team in the world who would have beaten South Africa [in the final] that day. They were just too good for us.”

By copying their tactics he must also negate the proficiency at the breakdown that Scotland hurt England with two years ago.

“They are pretty good in that area,” Jones said, “with [Hamish] Watson and the other boy, [Jamie] Ritchie. We’ve got a referee [Pascal Gauzere of France] that tends to allow a contest. But we are pretty well equipped, we’ve got [Tom] Curry, [Sam] Underhill and [Lewis] Ludlam. We expect the intensity of the breakdown early to be pretty high.”

And is it what happens later that could be just as telling.