LONDON // South Africa first met England on the rugby field in 1906, and if there is one aspect to both sides' play that hasn't changed in the 31 encounters during those 102 years, it is the emphasis on physicality. They seem to understand the role that brute force plays in rugby union and it is something which looks set to dominate tomorrow's encounter between the two teams at Twickenham.
It is just over a year since South Africa edged past England in the World Cup final to steal the mantle of world champions. Since that titanic encounter in Paris, the two sides have morphed considerably. Both sides boast new coaches. Peter de Villiers, in charge of South Africa since January, was keen to stress the importance of the battle among the forwards yesterday, when he unveiled his team. "If you don't dominate up front you can't play with the ball because you won't have the ball," de Villiers said.
He also outlined the mantra that his team should stick to tomorrow: "We will be direct and we will keep the ball, and when the occasions are there we will play the situation in front of us. If you can't make the right decisions on the day, there is no coaching style that will work." De Villiers named nine players in his matchday 22 that featured in the World Cup final, not least his captain, John Smit, who lines-up at hooker for the first time on tour.
Smit played loose-head prop in the 14-10 win over Scotland last week, and in the 20-15 victory over Wales the week before. Although he quite clearly enjoyed the experience, he was glad to be back in the position in which he won his other 78 caps. "It was a good experience," he said of playing prop. "I had lots of nerves playing the Welsh, but I got some really good support from the players around me."
England have lost their last five fixtures against South Africa, and another loss tomorrow will almost certainly prevent them from being in the top four in the IRB rankings on Nov 30. The rankings form the basis of next month's World Cup draw for New Zealand 2011. firstname.lastname@example.org