England suffered only their second defeat in 26 Test matches under Eddie Jones last week, and in that Calcutta Cup clash, Scotland showed that you’re in with a massive shout if you front up physically against the Roses and dominate the breakdown.
England have traditionally possessed a powerful pack of forwards, an effective set-piece, a well-functioning maul and an astute kicking game. They look to impose themselves physically on their opposition. They failed to do this against a fired up Scotland side that smashed them at the breakdown and put them on the back foot.
For me, the breakdown is the barometer of the physicality that you bring to a game. England clearly underestimated Scotland and never pitched up in the right mental frame of mind. This was evident in their lack of physicality. If you are not in the right mental state, you are not going to have the required physicality. This will be reflected at the breakdown and in the collisions.
In South Africa, we have an obsession with size, but size does not necessarily translate into physicality.
If you look at the Scotland flanks, Hamish Watson (1.85m, 102kg) and John Barclay (1.9m, 102kg), they are not massive men, but they were mightily effective against England. From a South African perspective, some will say Warren Whiteley isn’t big enough. However, it’s not a question of whether Whiteley is big enough, it’s a question of whether he is good enough.
The openside flank role remains a concern for England with the remainder of the Six Nations and the summer tour of South Africa in mind. Chris Robshaw is not a specialist openside flank.
One of the reasons England came unstuck was because they played without an openside flank against a Scotland team that had two opensides in Watson and Barclay. And the Scottish hooker, Stuart McInally, is a converted flank and is excellent on the ground.
Going forward, I’m pretty sure Jones will pick a specialist openside flank, probably in the form of Sam Underhill. From a South African standpoint, it’s important that we play a specialist openside; Siya Kolisi could possibly fulfill this role.
South Africa are also fortunate to have Malcolm Marx at hooker, who is outstanding on the ground and can replicate the McInally role. In addition to contesting the ball on the ground, it’s important the Boks dominate the collisions and are ruthless at the breakdown when they square off against England in the three-Test series.
In terms of the back division, the big call Jones has to make is in terms of the 10-12 combination and whether Owen Farrell or George Ford plays at flyhalf going forward.
Ford has been playing at 10 because England want a distributor at inside centre. Ford is a brave enough player but he’s not a big man – 1.78m and 84kg – and his presence leaves them defensively vulnerable. With Farrell at flyhalf, and either Ben Te’o or Manu Tuilagi at inside centre, England are much stronger defensively and the picture is changed radically.
However, if England continue to opt for Ford at flyhalf and Farrell at inside centre, South Africa should look to attack the 10 channel.
Both Jones and Rassie Erasmus are astute coaches – there is no question about that – but at the end of the day neither of them play the game. They fulfill important roles but the battle will be between the players on the pitch.
England, despite playing away from home at the end of their season, will start the first Test as favourites as they boast a far superior record over the past two seasons (they are ranked second, while SA are sixth in the world rankings).
From a high-performance perspective, it is not ideal that the Boks fly to Washington DC to face Wales a week before the opening game at Ellis Park on 9 June. Everything should have been done to ensure that the Boks can hit the ground running.
In fairness to the administrators at SA Rugby, we are not alone in playing Test matches abroad and, in the modern professional era, there is clearly a commercial angle. However, I don’t agree with it. We are South Africa and should be playing our Tests at home in front of our own people.
If you want to generate income from the Boks, we need to start winning. That is what will generate revenue; not flying halfway around the world to play in front of American supporters.
Former Springbok assistant coach, Solomons served as the Kings’ director of rugby from 2010 to 2013, spent three years in charge of Edinburgh and is now director of rugby at Worcester Warriors.