With England having just slipped to a disappointing first Test loss and in danger of sliding further down the World Rugby rankings, the news that a snake handler was invited into camp to help boost squad morale following their 42-39 defeat felt more than a little ironic. The deadly mambas, cobras and tarantulas proved a useful distraction but finding an antidote to English deficiencies is less easy.
With Wales hoping to move above their neighbours into fourth place in the rankings next week, the list of English concerns also now includes the Saracens hooker Schalk Brits who has interrupted his South African holiday to join the Springbok squad before the second Test in Bloemfontein. The 37-year-old Brits retired a fortnight ago but could yet be invited to make the most popular and unexpected of international comebacks.
What a wonderful tale it would be if Brits, among the most successful all‑time Premiership imports, were to resume his Test career against his Saracens team-mates Jamie George, Maro Itoje, the Vunipola brothers and Owen Farrell. Brits, who won the last of his 10 Springbok caps at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, attended the first Test at Ellis Park as a fan but Rassie Erasmus believes he can help South Africa’s younger players as they attempt to clinch the best-of-three series.
“We are busy building experience, continuity and capacity towards the Rugby World Cup, so we want our young players rubbing shoulders with experienced players such as Duane Vermeulen and Willie le Roux,” Erasmus said. “I want Schalk to perform a similar role because he has extensive inside knowledge and plenty of experience from playing for Saracens in English and European conditions. It’s a great way for our younger guys to learn the trade of international rugby from these guys.”
England, in contrast, have had to fly in the young, uncapped Worcester hooker Jack Singleton as cover after Exeter’s Luke Cowan-Dickie hurt a hamstring at Ellis Park. Joe Launchbury’s sore calf is also still being monitored as all concerned look to regroup following the visitors’ spectacular defensive implosion from 24-3 ahead in Johannesburg.
For England’s defence coach, Paul Gustard – on his last tour of duty before taking charge at Harlequins – these are particularly tricky days. His side conceded five tries at the weekend and a further nine against the Barbarians last month and the former Leicester and London Irish flanker acknowledges there is plenty of room for improvement.
“We didn’t defend well,” Gustard said. “We were tight and our spacing was poor. We just didn’t deliver what we know we’re capable of. We made some poor decisions, we didn’t work hard enough and we lost composure. There’s a knock-on effect of things going against you which you can’t quantify sometimes: the mental drain, the energy drain that comes with losing momentum. We need to correct that.
“It’s also about making good decisions around the tackle contest: whether to go in to slow or steal ball or to bounce out and be a defender in the front line. That said, we conceded three penalties for not rolling away, two for high tackles, one for Mako Vunipola’s late charge on Faf de Klerk and one for Maro Itoje not rolling away following a lineout. They weren’t all [poor] decision-making.”
It remains Gustard’s firm belief, furthermore, that England can still wriggle off the hook and win the last two Tests: “Absolutely we can rescue the series. We didn’t have the start to the series we wanted but we are still in it; we can still win the series 2-1 and everyone is a firm believer in that. The players want to achieve something historical and we genuinely believe we can do it.”
Amid all the snakes and spiders – Dan Robson and Nick Isiekwe proved the most squeamish team members – which enlivened the squad barbecue on Sunday evening, Gustard also insists England have been perfectly correct to base themselves at sea level despite the first two Tests being played at altitude. “We’ve got our own sports scientists and we’ve got a guy who mentors the coaches who head up British Athletics. We took all that advice in and spoke to a lot of Super Rugby teams about what to do. We are very happy with our decision to stay in Durban.
“The result at the weekend was not a reflection of the altitude, it was a reflection of our performance. We let them into the game and gave them too many opportunities, which is something we are looking forward to rectifying on Saturday.”