IT WAS put to me two weeks ago that Vern Cotter might field a “mixed XV” against South Africa, though, my informant added, Japan’s defeat of the Springboks might lead him to have second thoughts.
Well, some might call the named XV a mixed one, but it’s absurd to call this a second string side. For one thing three sure first-choices, Tommy Seymour, Jonny Gray and David Denton, come back after being rested against the USA, while Greig Laidlaw had only 20 minutes in that game, and WP Nel 40. Then Finn Russell, John Hardie and Grant Gilchrist are all missing, injured. Today’s starting team is at least an 80 per cent one. Apart from the unavoidable absentees, only Mark Bennett, Alasdair Dickinson and Ross Ford of what one might think our full-strength side are not starting, and Dickinson and Ford are on the bench.
Bennett is a natural tryscorer, and we’ll miss him. But we might miss him more if he wasn’t able to start against Samoa. Richie Vernon who takes his place is big and fast. He tackles like the converted No 8 he is – not a bad chap to have against big Springbok centres. His transition from the back-row to the centre happened a couple of years ago. He is not being thrown into an unfamiliar position, and there’s no reason to suppose he will look at all like a fish out of water as England’s Sam Burgess did against Wales last week.
Cotter has picked a physical side for a physical battle. South Africa have pace and skill in the back three, but they usually set out to overpower their opponents. With Denton and Josh Strauss together in the back row, Cotter is seeking to match power with power, while the Gray brothers will yield to no pair of locks in the world. As for the front row, much as ever depends on the referee’s judgment, but there have been days when Gordon Reid looked the best scrummaging loosehead we have.
The odds on victory are probably still against us but, if we start well, if we don’t muck up restarts, if we don’t kick loosely and allow Willie Le Roux time and space to run the ball back, if we are wary of Bryan Habana’s eye for the interception, if we compete intelligently at the breakdown, if we don’t concede penalties in our own half, and if we keep our heads in the Springbok 22, we might just do it.
If, if, if; all rugby is full of “ifs” as England’s Stuart Lancaster and Chris Robshaw must be only too well aware. For what it’s worth – not much I daresay – my reaction when England decided to go for a five-metre line-out rather than try to kick a goal was “the blighters are going to steal it”. I didn’t of course suppose they would make such a mess of their lineout – and indeed do so again when given a second chance.
Still, though their World Cup may end this evening, they can still avoid that humiliation. If they beat Australia they will qualify because it’s scarcely conceivable that they will fail to take five points from their last pool game against the amateurs from Uruguay. But Australia will fancy their chances. Defeat won’t necessarily end their tournament – they have another bite at the cherry against injury-stricken Wales. Dr Johnson said that when a man knows he is to be hanged in the morning it concentrates his mind wonderfully; that’s England’s position. If they lose, they face not only elimination but days, even weeks, in the pillory with insults and rotten eggs being hurled at them. Can they keep a cool head? Keep it tight and trust that Owen Farrell gets the chance to kick goals? Or play a daring game in the knowledge that there is no more dangerous side on the counter-attack than Australia? Fascinating.
So far it’s been a splendid World Cup, perhaps the best ever. There have been fewer one-sided matches in the pool stage than usual. Fiji have lost all three games, but have played some lovely rugby. Only Namibia and Uruguay have looked like gallant no-hopers. Canada were excellent for an hour against France, scoring two tries after being 17-3 down; they gave France a real test. DTH van der Merwe might well get the left-wing spot in a best of the tournament to date XV. The USA gave us a nasty fright for 40 minutes. So of course did Japan; it would no surprise if they beat Samoa this afternoon. That might do us a favour, for it would mean that Samoa’s hopes of qualifying were dead. But if we beat South Africa today, we’ll need no favours from anyone, which would be more than nice and a very happy surprise. And why not? If the Springboks concede as many penalties in their own half as they did against Japan, Greig Laidlaw may see us home.