England in danger of being stripped bare by South Africa and Australia

For those scheduled to face South Africa on the world champions’ northern hemisphere tour this autumn, the weekend was an ominous one. In producing easily their best performance since winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup the Springboks went back to the future in compelling fashion, narrowly edging out New Zealand in a tumultuous finale in the 101st meeting between the two proud rivals.

If it made for uncomfortable viewing for Wales, Scotland and England, who are all due to host the Boks next month, it was compounded by the subsequent social media footage of Rassie Erasmus dancing around in his boxer shorts at home in celebration. Very little Erasmus posts online happens accidentally and here was a timely nudge that South Africa’s camera-loving director of rugby is not huddled in a darkened room fretting about World Rugby’s still-pending inquiry into his well-publicised Lions tour antics.

Let us pray it does not lead to a rash of copycat videos – Eddie Jones in his budgie smugglers, Gregor Townsend in a tartan onesie – regardless of how much the social media personnel at Twickenham and Murrayfield would love the viral hits. For Jones, though, an even more alarming scenario would be England being stripped tactically bare by a resurgent Bok squad and an improving Wallabies team also showing signs of renewed bounce.

Clearly, there remain some Covid uncertainties – and having spent so long in assorted bubbles who knows whether South Africa can sustain the kind of dynamism and momentum that ultimately undid New Zealand? But what if the return of Duane Vermeulen continues to have a similarly striking effect on those around him and a buzzing Cheslin Kolbe is back available? Suddenly the plodding Lions series will recede further still into the background.

If any further reminder was needed of how significant this autumn is becoming for Jones and his future plans, it has arrived in the shape of Siya Kolisi’s autobiography, which details how rattled England were from early on in the World Cup final in Yokohama. According to Kolisi, South Africa had known in advance they might be. “When they’re under the cosh they start to lose it little by little,” he quotes Erasmus as advising the squad in the buildup. “Play on that. Lean on them, wear them down, make them turn on each other.”

History records that is largely what happened. England can be brutal on the front foot but, as their fifth-placed finish in the last Six Nations underlined, the sum of their parts does not always add up to what it could. They have three new assistant coaches in Richard Cockerill, Martin Gleeson and Anthony Siebold, who have one preparatory game, against Tonga, to bed in their ideas. Any notion of a routine, low-key autumn for England is fading by the day.

Scotland and Wales also have some points to prove, but imagine the howls from English supporters, for example, if their side go down disappointingly to the Boks and the Wallabies.

First up in the Six Nations in February is Scotland away. Murrayfield is never the easiest venue for an Englishman even if, like Cockerill, you were recently Edinburgh’s head coach. Having supporters back at a full Twickenham will be great but not so much, from the management’s perspective, if a torrent of boos is raining down from the stands.

The final England squad is due to be announced on Monday week and Jones’s selection dilemma has, if nothing else, been sharpened by Saturday’s events on Australia’s Gold Coast. In theory, this is the time to be lobbing the keys to Marcus Smith, Adam Radwan, Max Malins, Freddie Steward and some other promising young English backs and accelerating their progress to the 2023 World Cup squad. But is that going to work if South Africa arrive with a pumped up “Bomb Squad” and their forwards start grinding England into the same kind of Japanese pulp as two years ago?

If Jones plays safe and sticks with the old guard, however, the Boks will scent uncertainty and fancy reopening old scars. Kolisi is now on record saying that South Africa used their England-based players, such as Faf de Klerk, Schalk Brits and Vincent Koch, to supply inside knowledge of the habits and weaknesses of several of England’s star men. Jones may be better off trying something for which the Boks may be less well prepared.

That said, maybe there is a bigger picture we are all missing. New Zealand, until the fateful last penalty by Elton Jantjies that clinched the 31-29 win, were again close to knocking over the world champions without Sam Whitelock and Aaron Smith and with the influential Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie on the bench.

The tries the All Blacks did score, particularly Ardie Savea’s outstanding team effort, were prime examples of how lethal they remain off stolen set-piece or turnover ball; this was also the first time they have lost a Test to South Africa having led at half-time since 1998.

The moral of the story is twofold: New Zealand remain a good side and with France improving and the Wallabies reunited with some of their better overseas-based players the home unions have to up their games. The British and Irish public already wants reassurance the Lions was just a bad dream and they want it yesterday. Jones does not have to post videos of himself dancing without any strides on but England fans are desperate for a glimpse of something refreshingly different.