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Page last updated at 06:45 GMT, Thursday, 20 November 2008

England line up for toughest test

Venue: Twickenham Date: Saturday, 22 November Kick-off: 1430 GMT Coverage: Live on Sky Sports and BBC Radio 5 Live. Highlights on BBC Three (Saturday, 1910 GMT) and BBC Two (Sunday, 1510 GMT), BBC Red Button and BBC Sport website. Live text commentary on BBC Sport website

By Phil Harlow

Has the line-out ever been more important in rugby union than it is now?
Victor Matfield takes yet another line-out in last year's World Cup final
England got thoroughly sick of this sight in the World Cup final

While the slightest nudge at the scrum gets the journalists scribbling and the supporters cheering, the line-out is often overlooked.

But for a graphic illustration of just how pivotal this set-piece is, look no further than last year's World Cup final between England and South Africa.

England, who will get their first chance for revenge over the Springboks at Twickenham on Saturday, enjoyed 55% of possession, 57% of territory and spent more than twice as much time in their opponents' 22.

But the telling statistic saw South Africa win all 13 of their own line-out throws and steal seven of England's. In the words of England hooker Lee Mears, the Springboks "did a job" on their opponents.

Not selected, Mears watched from the comfort of the stands as hookers Mark Regan and George Chuter failed to cope with South Africa's all-conquering line-out.

This time around Mears is first choice in the number two shirt, part of a much-changed England line-up, and charged with the responsibility of throwing in to the line-out. If he fails, it is likely England will as well.

"It's a massive challenge, there's no two ways about it. It's quite nerve-wracking facing those two," Mears told BBC Sport.

It's not really realistic to expect people to come in and be world-beaters straight away

England lock Tom Palmer
"Those two" are Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, the South Africa locks widely regarded as the best second-row pairing in the world.

For an England team that conceded a try last weekend as a direct result of getting a line-out horribly wrong, Matfield and Botha are pretty much the last people you want to see running out of the Twickenham tunnel.

The pair, capped 133 times between them, are also team-mates in Super 14 with the Bulls - and Botha recently admitted that "sometimes I feel we know each other better than we know our wives".

South Africa may be coming to the end of a very long season, with coach Peter de Villiers complaining of "mental fatigue", but the mere presence of Matfield and Botha is enough to make England nervous.

"When you're up against players of that calibre you definitely have to come up with a specific plan," said the 29-year-old Mears.

"They are more than happy to have a pop at opposition throws. If you get it even slightly wrong, they'll have it away.

"If they do pinch a couple, you have to keep your head up. Hopefully I'm at the stage now where I'm old and wise enough to know that I'll put it right at the next one."

Competing with Matfield and Botha in the rarefied air of Twickenham will be England captain Steve Borthwick and Tom Palmer, a pair with 53 caps between them.

England are coming into the game off the back of a comprehensive 28-14 defeat by Australia last weekend, largely attributable to the number of penalties they gave away.

When Martin Johnson spoke at the team's base at Pennyhill Park this week, the words "precision" and "accuracy" were never far from his lips - and Palmer echoed his manager's thoughts.

Palmer, his softly spoken manner not masking his steely determination, told BBC Sport: "We're got to be accurate in everything we do in the line-out.

"They are an excellent line-out operation. It's going to be crucial that we stay focused in that department.

"We have to make sure we're winning our own ball at the set-piece to give our backline the possession they need."

Palmer sees Saturday's game as an important step in the development of Johnson's new England team.

"Test rugby is a big step up from anything else you'll play," said Palmer.

"There's a huge amount of desire within this side to win, everybody's very passionate about winning and doing well.

England forwards Lee Mears and Tom Palmer
Mears and Palmer will have to be in perfect harmony on Saturday
Some have suggested that what England need is a leader in Johnson's own snarling, nasty - but successful - mould.

But Johnson's reputation was forged over an 84-cap England career and it is easy to forget the indiscipline of his early years.

And Palmer is keen to stress that England are a work in progress.

"It's not really realistic to expect people to come in and be world-beaters straight away. It's a learning process at times and that's part of being a young, inexperienced team," he said.

"If this team can learn together, I know we can go on to be a very formidable outfit."

And if Mears, Palmer and co can pick up a few pointers off Matfield and Botha on Saturday, they will certainly be heading in the right direction.

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see also
Scrum must 'step it up' - Mears
19 Nov 08 |  English
Flanker Haskell back for England
18 Nov 08 |  English
South Africa postpone naming team
18 Nov 08 |  Rugby Union
Jeremy Guscott column
17 Nov 08 |  Rugby Union
England drop to fifth in rankings
17 Nov 08 |  Rugby Union
England 14-28 Australia
15 Nov 08 |  English
Cipriani told to improve defence
13 Nov 08 |  English
England 39-13 Pacific Islanders
08 Nov 08 |  English
England 6-15 South Africa
20 Oct 07 |  Rugby Union

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