England looks to pile misery on beleaguered Springboks
MANCHESTER, England (AP) — England couldn't ask for a better opportunity to end its decade-long losing run against South Africa.
Revitalized under new coach Eddie Jones, the English have won all nine of their tests in 2016 — taking in a Six Nations grand slam and an unprecedented series sweep in Australia — to be the standout team in the northern hemisphere.
It couldn't be more different for the Springboks, who are mired in one of the worst seasons in their proud history after five losses in nine games, have a lengthy injury and absentee list, and acknowledge that all facets of South African rugby are in sharp decline.
It makes them vulnerable to a first loss to England since 2006 when they meet at Twickenham on Saturday, as the autumn internationals get in full swing with all the major rugby-playing nations in action across Europe.
Even Springboks coach Allister Coetzee can't deny it.
"They are an extremely well-coached side with no apparent weaknesses," Coetzee said of England. "They are definite favorites."
Sensing, perhaps, that South Africa has little more to lose, Coetzee has selected a new-look Boks team that he hopes might spark something. The team's injury situation hasn't helped.
Deprived of winger Bryan Habana, scrumhalf Francois Hougaard, center Juan de Jongh and a long list of back-row forwards including Schalk Burger, Duane Vermeulen, Heinrich Brussouw, Francois Louw, and Roelof Smit, the Springboks team contains a few gambles.
Pieter-Steph du Toit switches from lock to the flank, outside center Francois Venter makes his test debut, and Coetzee named inexperienced replacements.
England is expecting an attritional match — no change there — and has struggled in recent years to handle the abrasiveness of South Africa's forwards. Jones also has his own injury concerns, having to reach down to his sixth-choice No. 7 in Tom Wood, and without frontline wingers Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell.
If England can gain parity up front, it should have too much behind the scrum, an area where the team showed major improvement Down Under in June compared to the Six Nations.
Rain is forecast, however, that could tighten things up.
Here's a look at the other games on Saturday:
SCOTLAND vs AUSTRALIA (Australia leads 20-9), Edinburgh, 1430 GMT
Bernard Foley was the makeshift answer to Michael Cheika's headache in late August. The Wallabies had lost four in a row, there was an injury crisis among the inside backs, Quade Cooper had come home from France, and coach Cheika needed an inside center.
He couldn't afford to dump Foley, his best goalkicker, so he shifted him from flyhalf to inside center. Just one out in the backline, but still alien to Foley. But Foley did OK. With Cooper and Foley directing, Australia won three out of five tests.
Cheika ended the experiment three weeks ago, restoring Foley to No. 10, and he's celebrated with a try against New Zealand, and a man-of-the-match effort in the thrashing of Wales in Cardiff last weekend.
Foley said the trials a largely fresh, young Wallabies side has endured this year have made it wiser and thicker-skinned. The defence has improved and become a point of pride.
Scotland is the second leg of the grand slam tour, and Foley, heeding their last meeting in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal at Twickenham just over a year ago, said Australia must get its discipline and set-pieces in order.
At the cup, the Scots bossed Australia in the scrum, and took advantage of penalties. Foley missed three conversions in the first half, and conceded a chargedown try, but had the nerve to kick the controversial last-seconds penalty. A year later, the Scots still can't take their eyes off him.
FRANCE vs. SAMOA (France leads 3-0), Toulouse, 1645 GMT
France coach Guy Noves is sticking with an inexperienced pack, and hopes his faith is repaid again.
That's because he saw signs of encouragement in the 27-0 win in Argentina in late June. The only change to the experimental pack from that game is the return of captain Guilhem Guirado at hooker.
"We're trying to work with a bit of continuity," Noves said. "It's also important for us to have a look at them in a different context."
France needs to find a good scrum again, the hallmark of the sides which won the 2010 Six Nations Grand Slam and reached the 2011 Rugby World Cup final.
"Argentina left us with good memories," Noves said. "Let's hope that what happens next proves us right."
WALES vs. ARGENTINA (Wales leads 10-5), Cardiff, 1730 GMT
The last time the Pumas played in Cardiff, they lit up Principality Stadium with an effervescent 43-20 win over Ireland in last year's Rugby World Cup quarterfinals. They return to the Welsh capital having just racked up a half-century of points in a win against Japan.
Argentina is a big concern for Wales. The home defence has been porous of late, conceding 26 tries in its last five tests that have all ended in defeat — the team's worst sequence since 2012-13.
Wales lost to Australia 32-8 last week, its heaviest home defeat in a decade, but has won four of its last five games against Argentina.
Interim Wales coach Rob Howley has wielded the ax, dropping stalwarts Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts.
IRELAND vs CANADA (Ireland leads 6-1-0), Dublin, 1915 GMT
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt was tempted to play stalwart flankers Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien against New Zealand last weekend in Chicago. But he left them at home to continue recovering their match fitness.
After long-term injuries, they play their first test together on Saturday since the Rugby World Cup. Both helped Ireland beat France to avoid New Zealand in the quarterfinals, and didn't play again in the cup.
O'Mahony ruptured right knee ligaments and didn't play again until last month.
O'Brien was suspended for punching, Ireland lost in the quarters, and ongoing hamstring issues meant this is his first match for Ireland since the Six Nations.
Despite missing the historic win over the All Blacks, both have a chance to prove they are worthy of playing New Zealand next week in Dublin. While O'Mahony said that match was a major goal, he added he was focused on Canada, and leading Ireland.
"I'm lucky enough to be back in an Irish setup," he said. "You can't take all this for granted, and I don't. It's too special to take for granted; to represent Ireland."