By Alan Pearey, Rugby World Deputy Editor
MALCOLM PREEDY was part of the first one-club front row to play for England. In 1984, the former Gloucester captain packed down with club-mates Steve Mills and Phil Blakeway against South Africa in Port Elizabeth.
“I don’t know why I got dropped after the game, I thought I’d done okay,” he recalls in a new book, The Gloucester Rugby Miscellany. “Me, Steve and Phil were all dropped but we had held our own.
“I remember the build-up to the game. John Scott, our captain, was playing in the second row, which wasn’t his usual position. We had only two practice scrums because John said his ears were hurting. I wanted to practise more but I was the new boy, so I went along with the seniors.”
Six years of hurt
Oh those crazy amateur days. England lost 33-15 that day, part of a long-running saga of pain against the Boks that was briefly interrupted by England sides of the early Noughties. They go into Saturday’s meeting at Twickenham seeking their first win in the fixture in 11 attempts, Andy Robinson’s 2006 team the last to buck the trend.
England fans leaving HQ last weekend offered mixed reviews of the defeat to Australia. Most of us are still trying to work out whether this young squad is a special team in the making or a mediocre group destined to disappoint against the world’s best.
Certainly England lacked cohesion against the Wallabies, with Toby Flood running up blind alleys without the necessary support. Chris Ashton must try to get on his shoulder – Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt are not of that ilk – but it can only happen if England generate quick ball rather than stodge.
Openside Francois Louw has been on song this month but he will be hard pressed to pose a tough as challenge as that offered by Wallaby Michael Hooper.
South Africa’s lineout has been perfect, with no lost throws in Dublin and Edinburgh, so England will be more inclined to keep the ball on the pitch via Ben Youngs box kicks. Well placed and well chased, they will hope. The return of Tom Wood (left) for Tom Johnson in the back row should not only help combat Louw’s work on the ground but alleviate some pressure in the lineout on the young Joe Launchbury, making his first start.
Of the three missing Saints, England have missed hooker Dylan Hartley’s aggression and offloading the most, but they will have been heartened by the sight of the Boks scrum backpeddling late on against Scotland.
Tries at a premium
The selection of Mike Brown on the wing appears a clear counter to South Africa’s kicking game, in particular that of the peerless Ruan Pienaar. England look well set up to thwart the Boks’ attack but don’t expect too many line breaks of their own. It may prove a battle of the boot and let’s hope that Youngs can curb his instinct to tap and go, because in a head-to-head kicking duel I would back Flood over the potentially vulnerable Pat Lambie.
Prediction: The Boks are severely understrength, so England can do it. By one point!
ENGLAND v SOUTH AFRICA, Saturday 24 November, 2.30pm, Twickenham, Live on Sky Sports 1
ENGLAND: Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Manu Samoa, Brad Barritt, Mike Brown; Toby Flood, Ben Youngs; Alex Corbisiero, Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Joe Launchbury, Geoff Parling, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw (captain), Ben Morgan.
Replacements: David Paice, David Wilson, Mako Vunipola, Mouritz Botha, James Haskell, Danny Care, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Joseph.
SOUTH AFRICA: Zane Kirchner; JP Pietersen, Juan de Jongh, Jean de Villiers (captain), Francois Hougaard; Pat Lambie, Ruan Pienaar; Gurthrö Steenkamp, Adriaan Strauss, Jannie du Plessis, Eben Etzebeth, Juandré Kruger, Francois Louw, Willem Alberts, Duane Vermeulen.
Replacements: Schalk Brits, Heinke van der Merwe, Pat Cilliers, Flip van der Merwe, Marcell Coetzee, Elton Jantjies, Jaco Taute, Lwazi Mvovo.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)