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England bank on master plan to unsettle South Africa in semi-final clash

rugby world cup 2023 quarter final france v south africa
The Springboks, who easily beat England in the 2019 World Cup final, are heavy favourites to reach this year's showpiece after a number of impressive displays

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face” and with South Africa being rugby’s equivalent of a Mike Tyson uppercut, England will need to stay focused amid multiple blows to have any chance of a World Cup semi-final upset on Saturday.

When the teams met in the final four years ago it was England who were favourites but the Springboks who came up with an unexpected approach, along with an unstoppable scrum, as they surged to a dominant 32-12 victory.

England are quietly fuming at the notion they are in the semi-finals by default and their five straight wins are of less value than those achieved in the tougher half of the draw.

However, they also know what was good enough to get past Argentina and Fiji will not be against the world’s number one team.

Having seen how South Africa hung in and then outlasted France in their epic 29-28 quarter-final victory, England know the levels they need to reach.

The Springboks are strong favourites to win the game but wily England coach Steve Borthwick presented his players with his master plan to beat them at the start of the week.

“Steve is brilliant with his game plan and it’s one that plays to our strengths, but we also need to raise to another level,” said number eight Ben Earl, one of England’s stand-out performers in their five wins.

Borthwick has recalled fullback Freddie Steward, one of the best in the world at dealing with the high ball – a tactic the Springboks used to great effect against France.

He has also opted to leave props Kyle Sinckler and Ellis Genge on the bench, with the idea that they can bring an injection of energy late in the game to match the impact of South Africa’s bomb squad.

Most England fans and neutrals will be delighted if their team is still in the hunt entering the final 20 minutes, but with rain forecast and Borthwick’s plan likely to involve a huge amount of kicking, there is every chance they will be.

TACTICAL BATTLE

Remarkably, England have not scored a try against South Africa in their four World Cup knockout meetings, including the final defeats of 2007 and 2019, with their only five pointer coming in their sole victory in the pool stage fixture in 2003.

South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber did not sound as if he was expecting England to be reversing that trend on Saturday.

“They are comfortable not playing with the ball and they like to suffocate and strangle you,” he said. “Tactically we know what is coming our way.”

Nienaber sprung something of a surprise himself by naming an unchanged 23 for the match, with a starting lineup boasting a national record 895 caps.

South Africa last lost a World Cup knockout game when they were edged by New Zealand in the 2015 semi-finals and even though they lost their opening pool game this time, they showed in 2019 that they can bounce back to go all the way.

Thirteen of Saturday’s England squad played in the fantastic semi-final victory over New Zealand in 2019, but the same 13 were also involved in the final so it is no surprise that the camp have been playing down the significance of that match.

On the South African side there are 15 World Cup winners back in action at the Stade de France in a squad that has added extra pace and width to their traditional strengths.

Teams

England:

15-Freddie Steward, 14-Jonny May, 13-Joe Marchant, 12-Manu Tuilagi, 11-Elliot Daly, 10-Owen Farrell (captain), 9-Alex Mitchell, 8-Ben Earl, 7-Tom Curry, 6-Courtney Lawes, 5-George Martin, 4-Maro Itoje, 3-Dan Cole, 2-Jamie George, 1-Joe Marler.

Replacements: 16-Theo Dan, 17-Ellis Genge, 18-Kyle Sinckler, 19-Ollie Chessum, 20-Billy Vunipola, 21-Danny Care, 22-George Ford, 23-Ollie Lawrence.

South Africa:

15-Damian Willemse, 14-Kurt-Lee Arendse, 13-Jesse Kriel, 12-Damian de Allende, 11-Cheslin Kolbe, 10-Manie Libbok, 9-Cobus Reinach, 1-Steven Kitshoff, 2-Bongi Mbonambi, 3-Frans Malherbe, 4-Eben Etzebeth, 5-Franco Mostert, 6-Siya Kolisi, 7-Pieter-Steph du Toit, 8-Duane Vermeulen

Replacements: 16-Deon Fourie, 17-Ox Nche, 18-Vincent Koch, 19-RG Snyman, 20-Kwagga Smith, 21-Faf de Klerk, 22-Handre Pollard, 23-Willie Le Roux.

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