England exposed by soft centre
FOR Irish Anglophobes, the depressing start to our World Cup campaign will have been diluted somewhat by the waves of depression washing over England, whose title of "reigning world champions" seems more ridiculous by the day.
It is hard not to feel sympathy for their coach Brian Ashton as each day seems to dawn with a new crisis to be agonised over and then played down before an unforgiving media.
Having based his World Cup strategy on the combination of prime British beef (to provide possession) and the boot of Jonny Wilkinson (to provide points), Ashton first had to deal with the loss of his key playmaker, to yet another injury, and then the justified suspension of his captain Phil Vickery for an act of stupidity against the US Eagles.
The absence of World Cup winner Vickery, who has been nowhere near his 2003 form, is not hugely significant in playing terms as Matt Stevens is his equal as a scrummager and brings more to the table with his ability around the park. However, psychologically, having to adjust to a new captain for England's biggest match since the World Cup final four years ago is a big ask for players already low on confidence.
The armband now goes to Martin Corry, a fine warrior and worth his place in the backrow, but also the man who Ashton deemed unworthy of captaincy when he took over from Andy Robinson at the start of the year. Corry will give his all, but it is hard not to recall him as the man who led England to a disastrous string of defeats during Robinson's troubled reign.
Wilkinson's absence seemed to be tempered by the promising display given by understudy Olly Barkley in the, otherwise unimpressive, win over the Eagles.
Barkley sparkled that day but has been ruled out indefinitely after injuring his hip in training and, with no Toby Flood or Shane Geraghty to call on, Ashton has been forced to turn to the dubious talents of Andy Farrell. It is a selection dripping in that well-known French perfume 'L'eau de desperation', for Farrell has underwhelmed in the centre and on the flank since his switch to union and to suddenly ask him to take on the role of chief string-puller looks like a last throw of dice. The English RFU must be questioning their massive investment in Farrell.
Chronically short of pace (unacceptable for a centre), Farrell's much lauded passing and "vision" have also been found wanting. He struggles to spin the ball off his left hand and any lengthy passes he flings out generally require the receiver to check their run or reach for a ball that is too high or too low.
He carries a massive responsibility tonight and to be further burdened -- along with Mike Catt -- with the place-kicking duties , his mental fortitude will be tested to the limit.
England's dire straits are reflected elsewhere in the composition of their bench, where they carry two scrum-halves -- Peter Richards to cover Shaun Perry and Andy Gomarsall, because he can kick goals -- hardly a ringing endorsement of Farrell's ability to put the ball over the bar.
The Springboks have their own problems. They have lost centre Jean de Villiers to injury and granite-jawed flanker Schalk Burger to a two-match ban, however, unlike England, their replacements slot in seamlessly.
Wikus van Heerden is another beast of a Boer in the backrow, while Francois Steyn is a fantastic young talent who seems ideally suited to the midfield slot. And, with a back three of Percy Montgomery, JP Pietersen and the electric Bryan Habana, the Springboks have a cutting edge that England lack.
Hope for England comes from the fact that Butch James is a pedestrian out-half and their massive backrow might cede advantage at the breakdown to the impressive scavenging skills of Tom Rees.
The English forwards, driven by pride and muscle, will match South Africa up front and provide plenty of possession but it is the doubts over Farrell's ability to use it, allied to a brittle confidence, that suggest a comfortable Springbok win.
ENGLAND -- J Robinson; J Lewsey, J Noon, M Catt, P Sackey; A farrell, S Perry; A Sheridan, M Regan, M Stevens; S Shaw, B Kay; M Corry (capt), N Easter, T Rees. Reps: G Chuter, P Freshwater, S Borthwick, L Moody, A Gomarsall, P Richards, M Tait
SOUTH AFRICA -- P Montgomery; JP Pietersen, J Fourie, F Steyn, B Habana; B James, F du Preez; O Du Randt, J Smit (capt), Br Botha; Ba Botha, V Matfield; W Van Heerden, J Smith, D Rossouw. Reps: B Du Plessis, CJ Van der Linde, J Muller, B Skinstad, R Pienaar, A Pretorius, W Olivier.
What to expect: Andy Farrell to be substituted.
Prediction: South Africa by 10-15 points.
Betfair Match Odds: England 13-2, South Africa 1-6, Draw 54-1.
Betfair Handicap Odds: England +16.5pts 1-1, South Africa -16.5pts 1-1
Stade de France, 8.0 UTV