No-one is giving England a chance of beating the Springboks at the Stade de France but I can guarantee you that every one of Steve Borthwick’s players will believe they can do it. That is the mindset you have to get into for a World Cup semifinal and they will be right there tonight.
If you judge England and South Africa across the tournament, South Africa have been comfortably the better side. But form goes out of the window in a one-off match like this.
The fact is that for the two games England needed to win at this tournament – Argentina and Fiji – they turned up. This is another of those games.
No matter how hard you try as a rugby player you cannot get into the same head space for matches against lower-calibre opponents as you do for the big nations. This is more true the more Tests you play – and there are a lot of players in this England side with a lot of caps.
If they are going to turn it on, they will turn it on for the big games and it doesn’t get much bigger than a World Cup semifinal against the world champions.
It’s a big shout parachuting George Martin into a fixture of this magnitude but Borthwick knows him well from Leicester and must think he has the temperament and the physicality for the job. Taking on Eben Etzebeth and his mates in the Springbok pack is big boys’ rugby.
A lot is made of South Africa’s size and the Boks do have some seriously big units but the world champions have threats all over the field these days and it is the little guys England need to be just as wary of.
I would much rather have been faced with a giant like Etzebeth down a 5m channel than someone with the feet of Cheslin Kolbe who is capable of making opponents look stupid. I’m reassured by the return of Freddie Steward at full-back for England this week.
I didn’t agree with Steward being left out last week – he has been one of England’s most reliable players in a struggling side over the past 12 months.
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Had Marcus Smith been available it would have been a big mistake to have picked him at the back. South Africa would have peppered him with high balls and made his life very uncomfortable. Now that avenue has been shut down for them.
From the outside everything is still telling me this is the Springboks’ game. But they are not unbeatable – Ireland have proved as much at this tournament. You never know what can happen in a rugby match – an early red card for instance.
Hand on heart I cannot say England will win tonight but I think it will be a lot closer than many people expect.
Mark Cueto was speaking in partnership with broadband provider The 4th Utility – https://the4thutility.co.uk.
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