JOHANNESBURG – England have turned to snakes as they try and turn the tables on hosts South Africa in Bloemfontein after an extraordinary first match last weekend in the three-Test series.
Another defeat Saturday in the second showdown and English dreams of winning a series in the republic for the first time will disappear, reducing the Cape Town Test to a dead rubber.
They looked to be heading for a handsome first Test triumph when leading by 21 points after just 18 minutes in Johannesburg only to collapse and lose 42-39.
To get their minds off a fifth consecutive beating this year, the players opted for a snakes-and-spiders show.
“We had a reptile show and a barbecue so that the boys could get their minds away from what happened in Johannesburg,” said defence coach Paul Gustard. “There were some long green snakes, some long black-and-white ones too. The players chose to do it and organised the show. They reacted differently to the slippery guests. Some seemed comfortable close to the snakes while others were quite nervous.”
Head coach Eddie Jones hopes the reptilian diversion works as he tries to snap a run of defeats since February by Scotland, France, Ireland, the Barbarians and South Africa.
While his position does not appear to be in immediate danger, the Australian knows he was hired to transform England into world rugby heavyweights, not bumbling middleweights.
Media reports suggest all may not be well in the England camp with Gustard leaving after the tour -- the latest departee from the coaching staff.
The training methods of the Australian have also come under fire from an English club boss with 15 players returning injured from camps since Jones took charge two years ago.
But the most pressing problem is on the field with England winning 24 of 25 Tests under Jones before failing in the last four.
He wants England to dominate South Africa early on at the 45,000-capacity Free State Stadium in central South Africa, but not crumble this time.
“When you win like South Africa did last Saturday you go into the next game with a bit of confidence so we have to make sure we dent that confidence early on,” he said. “Bloemfontein lies at altitude and the ground is very fast. It has an average of 60 points per Test so we are anticipating an ebb-and-flow game like we had in Johannesburg.
“We were brilliant at times early on in the first Test. Perhaps we got a bit seduced by our start, leading to uncharacteristic and costly errors.”
Jones resisted calls from some pundits to wield the axe mercilessly, making two changes to the starting line-up, both in the pack.
Flanker and former captain Chris Robshaw is dropped for the first time by Jones, making away for New Zealand-born Brad Shields, who gives England an extra lineout option.
The other change was expected with lock Joe Launchbury, fit after a calf injury, taking the place of Nick Isiekwe.
South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus also makes two changes and, like England, they are both among the forwards.
Frans Malherbe takes over at tighthead prop from Wilco Louw, who is “punch-drunk” from playing so much rugby this year, according to Erasmus.
And the Springboks hope to counter the height of Shields at the back of lineouts by selecting lock/flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit as a loose forward.
“I guess the second Test will be even more intense because both teams are so desperate for victory. We would like to seal the series and England want to keep it alive,” Erasmus said. “We are playing at altitude again, although not as high as Johannesburg. The faster the pace of the game, the more space that will open up.
“I expect England to be smarter and sharper. Eddie (Jones) is sure to have a few tricks up his sleeve.”
Agence France-Presse (AFP)