England's preparation for the opening Test of the 2016 Old Mutual Wealth series started when they met up as a wider squad at the Lensbury in London back in August. The coaching team had done their homework in terms of the commonalities found during England's decade of defeats against the Springboks and started the process of turning that record round.
The mini camp in Brighton hit the headlines for a number of reasons, most notably injuries and judo, but those few days also started to put some detail onto the South African game plan. Last week England's time in Portugal added more layers and was vital to ensure that the squad spent some quality time together and bridged the gap between domestic rugby and international rugby.
An area of added interest in Portugal was the addition of Jason Ryles to England's coaching staff, the former league player now turned coach. Much has been made of Ryles' introduction and the discussion has focused around a couple of key areas. First, what is he aiming to bring to the group? Second, how does Paul Gustard feel about it? Let's address and clarify both from the voice of England's defence coach himself shall we.
Jason Ryles is there to assist England's players specifically in terms of the 'contact area' of the tackle in order to counteract the physicality that South Africa, and other teams, will bring. The NRL coach is providing 'a few technical pointers' and specifics that are ingrained in his psyche and philosophies from years immersed at the top level of rugby league. The second point regarding how Paul Gustard feels about this gives you a true indication of the personality and character of England's defence coach. On Monday at Pennyhill Park he brushed aside any suggestion of upset or discontent at someone else arriving to input into his area of expertise;
"It is only my ego. What is my ego? It is irrelevant. It is about the players getting better. I have an opinion on how we tackle and he brings a specific focus to that area because it is a new voice. I present six times a week to the players and I coach every session on the pitch. I have individual meetings with the players so someone else talking about something and assisting me is not a problem. He is working in conjunction with me has been great. He has got good ideas that are innate with him as a rugby player and a coach."
Some might say that this is the standard response that you'd expect but sat opposite England's defence coach I can honestly say that he wasn't just giving the PC answer for the sake of it, he genuinely meant it. England's coaches under Eddie Jones know that the Australia is a hard task master and that he will bring in individuals into their areas. It's just another opportunity to develop and grow the squad as a whole.
As mentioned, since August England's focus has been on South Africa and despite the slightly chaotic nature of South African rugby England are fully prepared for the Boks to bring much more to Twickenham than we've seen recently.
"They are a dangerous team. Results do not always spell out the performances. While they may not have strung together a consistent 80 minutes across the Championship or in the summer against Ireland, what they do have is illuminating moments where they can hurt you big time."
Notoriously home nations stutter at the start of the autumn internationals, Wales were point and case of that at the weekend, but this isn't an option for England. According to England's defence coach the squad have 'spoken independently about what has been done, has been done' and despite having 10 wins under their belts there's absolutely zero chance of resting on their laurels. In fact when he asked if a touch of complacency may slip into the England's squad dynamic he answered with a steely look and a look that said really, you actually just suggested that followed by the words 'unequivocally no'.
It's clear that this squad and their coaching staff mean business. South Africa's threat isn't a secret, as one journalist neatly summarised when questioning, Paul Gustard South Africa have 'big men that run hard' and he's right! Historically England have been pushed about by the Boks, as Ben Youngs shared whenever he's played against South Africa he has never felt that England had been 'outclassed' simply they were 'physically beaten up'. That's why such a focus has been on defence, tackle technique and ensuring that they win the collisions and the gain line.
Saturday's match is another opportunity for England to move forwards and to send a message to those around them that they are a new side making their own history. England are eager to to show that they can't be pushed about by anybody and a powerful defence led by Gustard's and Ryles' principles combined will go a long way towards delivering that goal.