Springbok vs England Test Rugby
South Africa's Basie van Wyk (third r) kicks the ball on (Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

Rassie versus Eddie is really what Saturday’s Test match between England and South Africa comes down to. The history between the two rugby nations could be viewed as a slightly lesser form of warfare.

Rassie versus Eddie

The coaches involved easily comparable to generals of rugby. They plan out chess-like strategies to the ‘nth’ degree for a single match. The two countries have also been involved in open conflict twice in the last 140 years. They have also squared off on the rugby pitch for almost as long.

Springbok v England – Historical animosity

The first tour by the British Isles to South Africa took place in 1891. From that moment, there have always been more at stake for the teams than a simple notation in the record books. The tactics from the coaches and the performance from players are usually above and beyond what is expected. That desire to out play and out maneuver the opposition starts right at the top, the coaches. It’s a visceral response in the psyche of the two nations because of the history between them.

To illustrate this, after receiving a walloping in the 1891 tour, when the British returned in 1896 – three years before another real war broke out between the nations – the South Africans had hatched a new plan. Defend like you were protecting your country. Prepare for the onslaught like it’s all-out war. The 1896 tour is widely credited as being the first British and Irish Lions tour. This came at a time when real conflict loomed between the two nations.

Although the visitors won the first three Tests by decent margins, the South Africans (yet to be dubbed the Springboks back then) managed to keep a clean sheet in the fourth and final Test. They also managed a try and conversion of their own, ending the game as winners with a 5-0 score-line. Tries still counted 3 points in those days. So that is where the current Afrikaans word for a try still comes from. Namely “drie” – meaning three.

The best defense is… well, defense

The British touring team thus lost their first game against the South Africans in their history. This was the fourth official Test played between the two nations. This culture of ‘defense at all costs‘ then became the basis all future South African teams trained on. They may not have had the flair or the ball skills some other teams had, but they could nullify some of those options in the opposition. That always gave them a fighting chance. In the 1903 tour, South Africa managed to draw the first two games and win the final Test. Securing a series victory over the British for the first time. The first game against England came in 1906, with the teams drawing at Crystal Palace.

National pride still at stake in 2018

Fast-forward 116 years, the war on the pitch has never really ended. Every time they meet, the players and coaches still carry those historic motivators with them. Current England coach, Eddie Jones, has long been credited as one of the leading rugby brains in the business. He’s had an illustrious career and after getting sacked as Australia’s head coach, chose to join Jake White as a technical adviser in the successful Springbok 2007 World Cup campaign.

Eddie Jones has since boasted that that experience makes him the most knowledgeable coach about the Springboks’ and their abilities. Something he’s proven with Japan’s historic victory over the Springboks in 2015 while he was the coach there.

Similarly, Rassie Erasmus is infamous for his antics when it comes to rugby strategy. The notorious “signal-gate” incident during his time as the Free State Cheetah’s head coach is still somewhat of a rugby legend. Rassie turned the struggling Cheetahs around and helped them win a Currie Cup title for the first time in over thirty years in 2005. He did this while giving players signals from the roof of the Springbok Park Stadium using colored lights. Something that caused administrators and fans from opposition teams to study the law books again, thinking there must be something illegal about this strategy.

A possible surprise party

The overall record between the two sides is a little lopsided. They have played 38 games, South Africa leading the head-to-head with 23 wins. If anyone could claw three wins back for England, it’s Eddie Jones. If anyone could stretch that margin by three, it’s Rassie Erasmus.

So it will most likely come down to the strategies they deploy on the day of the match. England will look to blunt the forward strength of South Africa. South Africa in turn will likely take a structured, set-piece approach into the game. Yet, with these two generals at the helm, a whole array of surprises may await spectators.

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