By Mick Cleary, Rugby Union Correspondent , in Port Elizabeth
Making a point: England attack coach Mike Catt (left) and head coach, Stuart Lancaster, put the players through their paces ahead of the third Test against South Africa Photo: GETTY IMAGES
No sooner had Lancaster named Alex Corbisiero in the team for Saturday’s third Test at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium than the London Irish prop suffered a knee injury to leave Joe Marler with the task of holding up the loosehead side of the England scrum.
In isolation, the change is standard fare. In the context of this trip, the latest set-back may prove critical. As soon as Corbisiero (and lock Tom Palmer) came on last week at Ellis Park, England’s forward play found teeth. If England are to spare their blushes with a face-saving win in the final Test, then they have to find an edge in every single phase of play. Corbisiero’s absence makes that equation trickier to solve.
And if England were to lose again then the tour would be considered a failure, no matter that players are being developed for the future. Attack coach, World Cup-winner, Mike Catt, was in bullish mood on Friday in that regard.
“It probably took Clive Woodward three years to get to where Stuart Lancaster is now,” said Catt. “These youngsters will look back on this tour as the kick-start they needed to be very successful.”
That’s as may be. Even Catt though, out of work on Monday after completing his short-term contract, recognises the importance of the here and now.
England are facing their worst ever sequence of losses against any country, the nine successive defeats already matching a previous losing run against New Zealand and they have slipped down the world rankings to fifth place, outside the leading seeds with the World Cup draw to come at the end of the year.
Of course, Lancaster has only been in situ for six months and has achieved notable things. However, with three Tests to come against the southern superpowers in November, he needs to get a notch on his belt. The loss over the last few days alone of his captain, Chris Robshaw, scrum-half, Ben Youngs, wing Ugo Monye and now Corbisiero, makes that task all that much more difficult.
Lancaster has already invoked the Lions spirit of 2009, getting Monye and back-up hooker Lee Mears, to give the squad a gee-up with recollections of what the pair felt as part of the Lions group that beat the Boks in Johannesburg in the last Test of that tour, with the series already lost, 2-0.
England are in search of a pick-me-up along the same lines, although mention of that tour has already been made within the Springbok camp. They do not want to be suckered again.
Lancaster has made changes of choice as well as through adversity, looking to bolster England’s ball-carrying options with the preference for Thomas Waldrom over Ben Morgan at No 8.
James Haskell’s elevation into the Robshaw slot ought to generate some drive. Haskell himself realises that he cannot get drawn into being a gung-ho figure, all bluster and no brain. He has even sought advice during his time in New Zealand from that peerless back-row operator, Richie McCaw.
“It’s not about charging around mindlessly, it’s about where you can be most productive,” said Haskell.
Robshaw has been the bedrock of this England team, topping tackle counts and ball-carrying stats. Haskell has to show that he can be smart and decisive. His mates in the England pack also need to do a serious shift in defence. If South Africa are allowed to get off to the start they did seven days ago, then there is no prospect of victory.
“We can’t go to sleep or let them in,” said Catt. “When that big green machine gets rolling it’s very hard to stop.”
Quite. If England do manage to hold the line and deliver quality ball of their own, then the back line do have some menace about them. Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care is itching to show that he can be a pest on the field (now that he no longer is off it) and trigger up-tempo attacks with his trademark taps and blindside breaks.
The centre pairing of Manu Tuilagi and Jonathan Joseph needs to get hands on ball and show what they have to offer, aware too that Alex Goode runs perceptive lines from the rear.
The Springboks, with three changes, have their own injury issues and are likely to be less structured as a result. England have to make use of every possible advantage. If they don’t, then it won’t just be the local surfers finishing all washed-up.