England want to end a long, turbulent season on a high by winning the final rugby Test against the Springboks after a morale-restoring performance in the Six Nations was tempered by a series loss in South Africa.
Although England turned around their performances and image under new coach Stuart Lancaster following a poor and ill-disciplined World Cup last year, a 3-0 series sweep by the Boks would leave a bad taste lingering as the squad heads for their holidays after the series finale on Saturday.
Lancaster’s new-look team was resilient in Durban and Johannesburg, but narrow losses there have left the tourists facing a whitewash in Port Elizabeth.
The result, while not defining for England’s entire season, would be the lasting feeling for his first period in charge, Lancaster said on Thursday, after significant progress was made in the Six Nations.
South Africa, meanwhile, is starting out on its own journey under Heyneke Meyer and the new Boks coach made clear after the series-clinching win at Ellis Park last weekend that victory in all three Tests was his only goal.
It means the third Test at Nelson Mandela Stadium could be more competitive than the first two, even with the series already decided.
“There’s no such thing as a dead rubber in international rugby. It’s about the next game and winning the next game. We’re desperate to go out there and win the game and finish the season on a high,” Lancaster said after announcing six changes to his starting 15. “I said to the players at the start of the week … everyone’s got the opportunity to finish the season as a winner.
“That’s part of the motivation. It has been a long season for the players … but it’s about performing on Saturday.”
Lancaster recalled experienced pair James Haskell and Danny Care, who haven’t played a Test under him before, in an attempt to give England the winning edge after it fell just short in consecutive games.
Meyer’s decision to make just three changes to his 15, all of them enforced, underlined his desire to maintain momentum ahead of the Rugby Championship campaign against world champion New Zealand, Australia and Argentina from August.
Center Jean de Villiers was also appointed South Africa’s permanent captain for the remainder of 2012.
Alongside flanker Haskell and scrumhalf Care, prop Alex Corbisiero and lock Tom Palmer were brought in for England and No. 8 Thomas Waldrom and fullback Alex Goode were handed their first Test starts.
Haskell replaced injured captain Chris Robshaw and added bulk to England’s back row, with hooker Dylan Hartley confirmed as stand-in skipper. Care took over from Ben Youngs and returned to the test team having been dropped for the Six Nations for off-field disciplinary problems.
England lost 36-27 in the second Test last Saturday despite a spirited second-half fightback and will again have to counter South Africa’s physical style and powerful ball-carriers for a first win.
“We know how direct they are,” said Haskell, whose last test was at the World Cup. “You have to rise to the challenge.”
Care was given his chance after he was overlooked for the Six Nations and then arrested in March for a third alcohol-related incident.
Ahead of his comeback, the Harlequins No. 9 said he had taken playing for England “for granted” and was now “chomping at the bit” to prove himself again after a rocky year off the field.
South Africa’s three changes were forced on Meyer after fullback Patrick Lambie and destructive flanker Willem Alberts were ruled out with injury and center Francois Steyn was unavailable because of his wedding this weekend.
Gio Aplon replaced Lambie and Wynand Olivier was called up for Steyn. Muscular flanker Jacques Potgieter was given his Test debut as Meyer stuck with his renowned game plan of picking big, powerful forwards.
Of De Villiers, Meyer said: “We have built up an awesome working relationship based on trust, integrity and loyalty, which is why I decided to make him the captain for the rest of the year.”
Victory for the Springboks would launch their season perfectly and end England’s recent rollercoaster ride on a low.
South Africa: Gio Aplon, JP Pietersen, Jean de Villiers (captain), Wynand Olivier, Bryan Habana, Morne Steyn, Francois Hougaard, Pierre Spies, Jacques Potgieter, Marcell Coetzee, Juandre Kruger, Eben Etzebeth, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira. Reserves: Adriaan Strauss, Werner Kruger, Flip van der Merwe, Ryan Kankowski, Ruan Pienaar, Elton Jantjies, Bjorn Basson.
England: Alex Goode, Chris Ashton, Jonathan Joseph, Manu Tuilagi, Ben Foden, Toby Flood, Danny Care; Thomas Waldrom, James Haskell, Tom Johnson, Geoff Parling, Tom Palmer, Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley (captain), Alex Corbisiero. Reserves: Lee Mears, Joe Marler, Mouritz Botha, Phil Dowson, Lee Dickson, Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt. – Sapa-AP