South Africa v England: Talking points ahead of Saturday's series opener

Rugby Union
Billy Vunipola
Billy Vunipola

England and South Africa collide in Saturday's series opener at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. PA Sport examines five talking points surrounding the first of their three Tests

England delicately poised

Four successive defeats, the last of them in a non-cap international against the Barbarians at Twickenham, have heightened the pressure on Eddie Jones amid a mischievous prediction from Warren Gatland that they could be facing a series whitewash by South Africa. Jones' regime is under scrutiny off the field too due to his ongoing feud with Bath owner Bruce Craig and his decision to pick Kiwi flanker Brad Shields, who qualifies for England through his parents. A win against the Springboks would provide the Australian with ammo to answer his critics.

Crunch time for the Springbok narrative

One pre-match plot line is the idea of a South African revival made possible by the appointment of Rassie Erasmus as their new coach and the availability of their European-based players. Expectations that it will be the Springboks of old who run out at Ellis Park are built on flimsy evidence, however, as injuries and the number of debutants point to a team of unknown strength.

Altitude policy

England are visiting the sport's highest Test venue which is situated over a mile above sea level. The received wisdom is that teams either fly in early to acclimatise or leave it as late as possible, but Jones' extensive experience of performing at altitude is that the reduced oxygen has little bearing on the outcome of a match. "We have spoken about it a little bit but it's not something that I think decides whether we win or lose," Jones said. "If you have got a good side you win there, if you haven't got a good side, you don't win there."

Billy's returned - but will he last the distance?

Billy Vunipola is finally back to make his first appearance for England since the demise of their record equalling 18-Test winning run against Ireland in March 2017. The wrecking ball number eight is their main source of forward momentum and his presence is to be welcomed, but doubts hover over his fitness. An injury ravaged-year took another twist leading into Saracens' successful Aviva Premiership play-off campaign when a tight hamstring limited his involvement, but Jones insists he is ready to face the Springboks.

History made by Kolisi

For the first time in their proud 126-year history, South Africa will enter a Test match with a black captain at the helm. Raised in poverty in Port Elizabeth's Zwide township, Siya Kolisi has reached the pinnacle of the game on these shores after overcoming a series of personal traumas including the death of his grandmother when he was 16-years-old and the death of his mum six years later. "My first goal was to get a meal at the end of the day," Kolisi said of his formative years.

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