England prop Joe Marler responded to a question from the media on the eve of their match against South Africa by getting out of his chair and putting his foot on the table.
He was wearing high-backed boxing boots.
It had been a couple of days before, that scrum coach Matt Proudfoot had revealed the existence of England’s front-row ‘fight club’.
As Ed Norton and Brad Pitt continually reminded us in the film of the same name, you don’t talk about Fight Club.
And the details from inside the England camp have been sparse. The focus is on “contact work”, “body position” and “binding” rather than fisticuffs apparently. Even so, overseen by Proudfoot – who masterminded the Boks’ set-piece at the last World Cup – it won’t be for the faint-hearted.
But then neither is the front-row coalface when the Boks are in town.
No other country spits out scrummaging diamonds in the same quantity or quality. Vincent Koch, Malcolm Marx and Steven Kitshoff would be inked into most Test XVs. For the Boks they are the clean-up crew, called off the bench to wipe the floor with whatever is left of the opposition after Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi and Trevor Nyakane have finished with them.
England were less well stocked this week. Illness took Ellis Genge out of contention. Injury did for hookers Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie. Marler wasn’t ready to start, having spent 10 days chasing around an empty chicken pen – like Rocky without the avian extras – as he trained in isolation at home following a bout of Covid.
Jones could have pulled the rip cord, smashed the glass and called up Mako Vunipola.
The 30-year-old Saracen played in all three Tests against the Springboks for the Lions in the summer. He started the Rugby World Cup final defeat in 2019. A known quantity when the white heat comes on.
But Jones refused to U-turn. Having left out Vunipola, he kept the faith with Sale’s pinball prop Bevan Rodd and free-roaming hooker Jamie Blamire, who had just five caps and two previous starts between them.
It left England with a gulf in experience in a critical area. South Africa’s warm-up underlined the point as they packed down their two front rows – starters and finishers – against each other in an ominous show of strength.
But come kick-off, England were hard to back into the corner.
Kyle Sinckler grinned wide at opposite number Ox Nche after milking a penalty from the first scrum of the match. Blamire’s first line-out throw was zipped fast and hard to a grounded Maro Itoje, taking the Bok jumpers by surprise.
Blamire’s fast hook set in motion Freddie Steward’s try while the South Africa pack were still piling pressure into the set-piece.
You can only bob and weave for so long however. Against the Boks there will always be times where you have no option but to stand and slug. And not much chance of coming out on top.
The South Africa steamroller picked up pace. England’s penalty count rocketed skywards – they conceded a mammoth 18 in all – as their scrum went into retreat. Three times, South Africa splintered the set-piece to smithereens after the break. In the loose, Rodd was on the end of juddering hit from Nche.
But England dusted themselves down and fought on. Marler, Will Stuart and debutant Nic Dolly came off the bench and, as the Boks’ long season caught up with them in the final 10 minutes, England’s collective resilience was rewarded.
“We had to box clever – we had to dig deep and find a way to win,” said Marler afterwards.
“Occasionally we can mix it with South Africa in their areas of strength but they showed they were still very much the dominant force at scrum and maul.
“You’ve got to find ways to adapt. You’ve got to find ways to fight fire with fire at times and front up, but also play to our strengths and abilities. We had to try and move the ball more. When you have a backline like the one we had today, you want them with the ball in their hands.”
Victory over the world champions is an eye-catching one on the record for England’s up-and-comers.
But Marler will remember England’s previous win over South Africa. In November 2018, a mix-and-match England pack withstood an avalanche of Springbok pressure to sneak a one-point win.
A year later, in the Drama in Yokohama, they were flattened.
England were brave and canny on Saturday, but it’s a difficult trick to repeat against South Africa’s brute strength and strength in depth.
The other rule of front-row fight club is that the Boks always come back better.