England in South Africa is still a special Test match but there’s probably not as much excitement as usual about Saturday’s clash because England are limping along at the moment and the Springboks are in a mess.
After a dire Six Nations and four losses in a row, it’s so important that England put a stop to their winless streak.
A year out from the World Cup, we also need to see some encouraging performances and signs that they’re improving in the areas in which they've been lacking — in attack and at the breakdown.
However, this Saturday at Ellis Park in Johannesburg is all about putting a stop to the losing run. That would hopefully be backed up by a strong performance but first and foremost they just need a win. It would immediately breathe some confidence back into the side and relieve some of the media pressure. England need the momentum back in their favour.
If they lose you can already see the comments about England succumbing to a team that got beaten by a second string Wales in Washington DC last week. It will be even more fuel poured onto a rapidly growing fire.
Luckily for Eddie Jones, it’s probably the perfect time to go to South Africa — if you can say such a thing about a country where the Red Rose only has three Test victories in their history and has never won a series. South African rugby at the moment is all over the place. It’s certainly the country I’d want to go and tour with a struggling side if I were Eddie Jones.
It’s perhaps not a fair reflection of what England will face at Ellis Park, but South Africa were abysmal in their 20-22 defeat to Wales last Saturday. It was the worst game of rugby I’ve seen in a long time.
If you can’t read too much into the players, you can read into head coach Rassie Erasmus' style of play which was, quite frankly, diabolical. So pedestrian, telegraphed and obvious.
To their credit, Wales were absolutely dominant at the breakdown. England need to take note. Once they can start securing ball and winning turnovers they can get a bit of consistency back into their play.
Rewind to this time two years ago, when heady comparisons between Jones’s England and New Zealand first started to be made as England swept to a series victory in Australia. During that 3-0 series whitewash, England were clinical at the breakdown and when they got opportunities to score points they took them. They’ve still got the endeavour and the brawn. They’re still competitive and semi-dominant up front. Those elements are solid. It’s the intricate pieces where they’re getting found out.
The return of wrecking ball Billy Vunipola should help but he needs guile and creativity behind him. Not just his No9 and No10 but people running smart lines, looking for offloads and looking to shift the point of attack. That’s what poses questions of international defences.
England need to give the Boks something to answer in Johannesburg.
Ollie Phillips is leading a group of inspiring individuals to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro this October. To join him visit https://www.360-expeditions.com/expeditions/ollie-phillips-kilimanjaro