By Harry Hawkins
Stuart Lancaster showed once again on Thursday morning that he has no qualms about making bold selection choices. Almost half of the side is different to the one he fielded last weekend – partly through injury, partly through tactical reasoning. The side overall offers a more experienced pack and possibly a slightly more dangerous backline, but new players in key positions must play outstanding games for England if the side is to stand a chance to overturn the Springboks.
The bad news for Lancaster’s team is that arguably their two top performers of the second Test have been ruled out of the rest of the tour. Ben Youngs was sublime at scrum half last weekend, but finds himself facing a lengthy spell on the sidelines, while England’s inspirational captain Chris Robshaw also misses this weekend’s game. Both players are clearly part of Lancaster’s long term plans and will return to the side but in the meantime it falls to Lancaster to fill the gaps left by these key players.
Fortunately at scrum-half the coach has at his disposal the other outstanding scrum half of the Premiership season, Danny Care. The Harlequins number nine not only finished the season as a key component of his club’s successful campaign, but looked sharp in England’s first midweek fixture, and was arguably unlucky to be omitted from last week’s Test side. Care’s running threat is as great as any that England can offer but he must first and foremost ensure that his kicking and game-management, in conjunction with Toby Flood, is of the highest quality.
England will have greater difficulty replacing Chris Robshaw. James Haskell, the named openside in England’s team, was one of England’s (few) performers at the World Cup and brings immense physical strength, as well as experience to the pack. However, under Lancaster England’s shape has become heavily moulded around Robshaw, who wins the majority of the side’s turnovers at the breakdown, is generally the top tackler, and often acts as first receiver in attack. If England are to stand a chance in Port Elizabeth Haskell will need one of his finest performances in a white shirt in both attack and defence.
Elsewhere, Lancaster’s changes are of a more deliberate nature. England fans should be encouraged that Thomas Waldrom has been rewarded for his strong performances earlier in the tour in place of Ben Morgan. Morgan is a fine player and is another who will return eventually to the Test side but Waldrom finds himself in such a rich vein of form that his selection seemed irresistible. England will look to Waldrom to impose his well-known carrying ability – an area England have not excelled at thus far in the series.
Tom Palmer replaces Mouritz Botha at lock, perhaps in an attempt to shore up England’s shaky lineout, while Alex Corbisiero is also rewarded for an impressive performance from the bench last weekend with a start. Neither change will drastically alter England’s play but both bring greater experience to a forward pack desperate to finally impose itself on its opposition.
The Tuilagi-Joseph experiment continues in the centre, with the final change occuring in the back-three, where Lancaster has opted to return to the combination of two full-backs and one winger. This time Alex Goode wins his first start at fifteen, with Foden moving back to the left-wing. Once again, the primary duties of these two will be to deal with South Africa’s relentless kicking game, while Chris Ashton keeps his place to capitalise on any try-scoring opportunity – and there will not be many – that England may create.
Of course, every player in the squad must perform well for England to beat the Springboks, but it is Care and Haskell, the replacements for England’s best players last weekend, who must play close-to-perfect games in order to give the team a platform from which a victory might be snatched. The odds are stacked against England, but with pride at stake, victory is not an impossibility.
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