Former England international, Toby Flood, spoke with BettingSites.co.uk to discuss the crucial World Cup semi-final clash between England v South Africa.
- ‘Outstanding’ Manu Tuilagi could play his last game for England on Saturday – he will relish physical battle
- Freddie Steward could come back in for Marcus Smith at full-back
- George Ford could be a better fly-half than Owen Farrell, but Owen is the man
- Ben Earl could lose his place at Number 8 to revert to openside flanker
- England may struggle with ‘sheer physicality’ against South Africa
- They can beat South Africa – but I back Boks to win tournament
Question: How good has Manu Tuilagi been in recent weeks?
Toby Flood: He has been outstanding, the dominant back for England. He is an incredible player considering what he has been through. He looks really fit and ready for this.
He knows this is possibly his last game For England so will be ready. He relishes the physicality.
Q: Marcus Smith at fullback?
TF: With the aerial threat there is an argument for bringing back Freddie Steward. Marcus Smith didn’t rip things up but he brings something different to the team. Do you want to lose that ability to unlock defences?
There were times when he nearly broke away against Fiji. I do worry that he might find himself out of the squad this weekend because of the aerial threat from South Africa. That is the way they score a lot of their tries.
Q: Owen Farrell. What does he bring?
TF: Steve Borthwick was always going to revert to Owen in the knockout stages. He brings solidarity and belief. He’s been there and done it a 100 times for England and Saracens.
He is going to implement the game plan Steve wants. He is not captain through default. He has been there a long time and is a good leader. You have a guy who the team will look up to and have a huge amount of respect for. You could argue that George Ford is a better fly half.
But at the same time what you want in a World Cup semi-final is a solid base, a man that understands the needs and wants of his team and how to turn the screw when needed. Owen is that man.
Q: Any other changes for England?
TF: You could argue England could change bits and pieces. Maybe a proper number 8 in there who could control the back of the scrum. There’s an argument there.
But Earl has been very strong. But overall there’s not a huge amount England will want to change. England are playing their way into form.
Q: You have faced South Africa in your career. What is about them that makes them so difficult, such beasts?
TF: There is that DNA in them. They don’t take a backward step. Everything is physically relentless. It wears you down. Every breakdown you are getting hit. Every contact.
They never drop off. They keep coming, they keep whacking you. For me that is why they are so strong, especially in World Cups. It all breaks down to the breakdown and how well you can run the breakdown and that physical battle around the tackle area. South Africa just don’t give up.
They make everything a mess. They batter you. There is no easy out. South Africa are so physical not least with Jesse Kriel in the centre. He is huge. It is relentless.
Q: You said in the quarter finals New Zealand and South Africa produced a level of performance that was 30% better than England. But can England bridge that gap?
TF: Yes they can. They thrive on the backs to the wall mentality. Fiji were not relentless for 80 minutes. France were giving as good as they get.
That match would have taken a huge amount out of South Africa but if anyone can repeat it, it is South Africa. But don’t write off England. They have the ability. For any player being 80 minutes from a World Cup final brings an extra dynamic. They will put everything on the line. England will be able to raise their game.
They will know what is coming. There is no question that they can’t get to the required level. It is just how long can they sustain it.
Q: What will be the key for England?
TF: Can they get ahead of South Africa on the scoreboard? You don’t even want to be chasing a game against South Africa. You are forced into errors. It is a much better place to be defending a lead in say the last 15 minutes of a World Cup knockout game. It almost becomes easy. You get off the floor and hit them, and repeat.
That is a much safer place to be in a World Cup semi-final. You don’t want to be tyring to create an opportunity and take risks. England need to be able to stay ahead. If they fall behind then it becomes a really tough task.
Q: Symmetry with 2007 for England? Do you agree?
TF: Yes, you definitely can see that. England found momentum in 2007 after losing 36-0 in the opening game against the Boks. They are finding momentum now. This team has kept winning.
People are saying they are not playing very well, but the joy for England is they find themselves in a World Cup semi-final. They do have the quality and if they can just find that performance as they did against New Zealand in 2019, then suddenly they can become very dangerous.
Q: Memories of 2007?
TF: I replaced my great mate Jamie Noon who was injured. I made the team for the knockout stages as we rolled towards the final. We turned it around ourselves.
I was very young at the time but the senior players, the likes of Martin Corry and Phil Vickery and Lawrence Dallaglio took control of it and said we are not going to stand for this and we will retaliate. The players circle the wagons. The key thing I remember was the bond and the camaraderie we built up. It was an incredible journey.
We beat Australia by dominating their scrum and Jonny kicking the goals. That was almost the gateway to believing we could make it. The change in dynamic grew the self-belief.
Q: England seem to thrive on siege mentality?
TF: The irony is England are the only unbeaten team in the tournament. That is remarkable in itself. I doubt anyone would have thought that before the tournament.
They do enjoy the fact that people question their ability and skillset. England have always had this fighting spirit, backs to the wall, stiff upper lip mentality.
Q: Do you think Mark Cueto scored in the ’07 final?
TF: Who knows. It will be a talking point forever! If it had been given, would it have changed the game. Would South Africa have found a way to score. Probably.
They had Percy Montogomery who wasn’t going to miss many. There was still a lot of time to play. Who knows what would have happened!
Q: Man for man can England match South Africa?
TF: Man for man if you took every member of that England team at their best you could argue that we were as good as them. They certainly have the ability. The skillset is certainly there.
Where they might struggle is the sheer physicality. The Boks have big men everywhere. But it comes down to form and England are playing themselves into form and can be a very dangerous side. On their day they are good enough to beat South Africa.
Q: That toughness is similar to Saracens who have a strong South African streak running through their team. Would you agree?
TF: Yes, it flows through the team. And that is what Steve Borthwick has grown up on. He left Bath for Saracens as a player and the club became a big part of his DNA. The metrics that South Africa use are the same as England will be using.
It’s not hugely dissimilar. They will understand and know that. Knowing it is one thing however, stopping it is another. With the size they have, that is where it become really testing. They are a serious outfit.
Q: Tactical HIAs against France? Were South Africa playing the game?
TF: You can’t question that because if you get one call wrong and a player becomes unwell then that’s a risk which no-one can take. We all care about player safety. Are they manipulating the system?
I have no idea. I’d like to think they are not. It opens up a huge can of worms if they are.
Q: Prediction time?
TF: I have backed South Africa from the start. I’d love England to win but I’ve just got something at the back of my mind that South Africa will win, but not by much.
I think it will be close but South Africa by five to eight points. It won’t be a cricket score like 2007!