PRESLES, France — South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has named the team he expects England to field in their Rugby World Cup semifinal on Saturday and believes they have “beef” with the Springboks after they lost the 2019 final.
It was a typically absorbing press conference with Erasmus on Tuesday. It was held in a local hall in Presles, a commune 30 kilometres north of Paris, and the Boks’ chief was sitting on a stage, framed by two red theatrical curtains with a spotlight on him. Erasmus has never been far from the rugby limelight with a rich history of innovation and also mind games and he started his press conference by weighing up the expected similarities between the two sides.
“They are a massive speedbump for us to get over,” Erasmus said. “I was looking at their possible team and we average 200 minutes per player; them 216. The average caps in our team will be around 54; them around 59. Average age for us 30; them 29. Average weight 104 (kilograms) against 105.”
When asked what England team he expects Borthwick to name on Friday, without missing a beat, he said: “Now, we’re guessing, obviously. We took the basic guys – [Ellis] Genge, [Jamie] George, [Kyle] Sinckler, [Maro] Itoje, [Ollie] Chessum, [Courtney] Lawes, [Tom] Curry, [Ben] Earl, [Alex] Mitchell, [Owen] Farrell, [Elliot] Daly, [Manu] Tuilagi, [Joe] Marchant, [Jonny] May, Marcus Smith or [Freddie] Steward, [Joe] Marler, [Dan] Cole, George [Martin] , Billy [Vunipola] , Ben Youngs or Danny, [Care] George Ford, and Ollie [Lawrence]. That’s who we think but we might be totally wrong.”
He then gave a detailed assessment of England’s threats and options: “Firstly, guessing their team it’s interesting — Marcus [Smith], will he or Freddie play? Will Owen [Farrell] play inside centre with [Manu] Tuilagi outside or will [George] Ford play fly-half and drop-goal everything there? They’ve got Courtney [Lawes] who can play lock and flank, he’s been such a rock at flank for them and they have the energy of the other two young loose forwards. They bring energy on the field in all departments. They’ve got Sinckler there, Jamie and so many experienced players who played against us last time. I think because they played us end of year last year, and they played us at the Rugby World Cup final, I think they’ll have some beef with us. There are threats all over the park and it’s starting to get together for Borthwick.”
England have been keen to downplay any talk of this match acting as revenge for their final defeat four years back. They have a new coaching team, but there are also plenty of players in the squad who featured in that final at Yokohama. “What I mean with [the beef], is, it’s just normal, we’ve played them since the 2019 World Cup, we played them in I think it was Eddie’s last game.
“It’s something that will always hurt, when you lose the World Cup. When I was a player we lost the World Cup against Australia and in the next couple of games we played against Australia we were always thinking “it was you guys who took it away from us”, and England will feel like that, “you guys took it away from us and we would like to take it back”. That’s the excitement.
“I’m not saying it in a negative way, I feel that’s how professional sport is, you want to rectify problems, you want to make your country proud, you want to make your people proud, you want to make your team proud, and I think that the English team will have to be like that, they will not be saying ‘hey, come and do it again to us’ they will really fight to the end.”
The Springboks have provided plenty of intrigue this World Cup. There was their traffic light system which they said was to communicate with support staff over the severity of on-field injuries. There was also their decision to go with a 7-1 split on the bench for their defeat to Ireland- seven forwards, one back, which is an unconventional choice. On Sunday, in their quarterfinal win over France, we saw winger Cheslin Kolbe charge down a conversion attempt and the team also make a decision to call a scrum off a mark.
Erasmus said there’s little chance they’ll deploy the 7-1 split for England. “It is tough to weigh up 7-1 with Handre [Pollard] and Manie [Libbok] ready now,” Erasmus said. “Giving Faf [de Klerk]and Handre a start together is obviously very tempting but having Willie [Le Roux] also in the 23 means having Damien Willemse out of the 23 and he covers 10, 12 and 15 for you. So I think a 6-2 is more likely because you have two fully fit fly halves available and you have to have a nine on the bench so I think a 7-1 is out of the question.”
Erasmus also said he wasn’t naming his team until 48 hours before Saturday’s match as he wanted to see what England were going to do with their bench. He’s mentioned the possibility of switching half-backs, while he also hinted at Canan Moodie having a role because of the way “England plays.”
The Springboks head into Saturday’s match as favourites, but Erasmus is unwilling to listen to that noise. “I think there are three realities — there’s the reality with England beef, there’s the reality with what the world says — the media, the pundits — and then there’s our reality, and the truth,” Erasmus said.
“The truth is England haven’t lost a pool game, they didn’t lose the quarterfinal, they were in the building stage, they stuck to their guns, I don’t think they’ve had a lot of injuries.
“We would be stupid [to listen], we know we have a six-day turnaround, we travelled yesterday and I think they also have a six-day turnaround and we need to build a game.
“If you look at the caps and the age, it’s exactly the same — they have 29/30, — they have managed 216, we have 200 minutes per man. It’s two teams that’s fresh enough, there are other teams in the 300/400 minutes and getting injuries in certain positions so no. We stay in our reality, in what we believe, what we analyse, how we train and we certainly know England will be as tough as it comes.”