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The Hedgehog defends his hedge against the Fox as England host the Springboks

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Roar Guru
1st November, 2018
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3094 Reads

The Ancient Greek poet Archilochus once wrote this cryptic line: ‘A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.’

Writers ever since have latched on to this organising idea, to categorise thinkers (and doers) as hedgehogs, who see the world through the lens of one clear concept or belief, or foxes, who have a wider, nuanced view of life and action.

A fox can live easily with contradictions; a hedgehog must reduce each problem to one solution.

But while a fox can be a brilliant hunter, he is often caught by other hunters, despite high intelligence. A hedgehog won’t outrun or outfox many predators, but by rolling himself into a spiny ball, cannot easily be bitten.

Under the cosh, a hedgehog has one go-to move, a single and central vision of survival, and it requires only instinct, not a plan.

But a fox can definitely avoid more problems, because a fox can predict trouble before it arrives.

Oxford don and philosopher Isaiah Berlin popularised the hedgehog-fox paradigm in a 1953 book, but placed an extra intellectual layer on it, with his thesis that a person could be by nature a fox, but by conviction a hedgehog, causing dissonance.

The ever-arrogating Napoleon Bonaparte might be a good example of this malady, as he pretended to be a simpleton in need of territory, wracked by secret over-complexities of purpose.

On the other foot, a born hedgehog could try to pose as a wily fox, and fool nobody but himself and other fake foxes and foxy fakes, as he stumbles towards failure, perhaps even whilst impersonating a president of the United States.

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Eddie Jones and Rassie Erasmus face off again, for the fourth time in 2018, and the forty-second time ever, inside the hedges around a cabbage patch called Twickenham.

At first glance, the quick-quipping Aussie who taught Japan to beat the Springboks with scrums that lasted less than a second might be assumed to be the fox.

But Eddie is a hedgehog, of hoggish proportions, and he has selected a team of hedgehogs. Dylan Hartley is his forward captain, and Owen Farrell is the skipper of his backs. Both men will do exactly what you expect, but decisively. Hartley will play the man, hard and low, and stay in his shell. Owen Farrell will have his ruler, his angles, and pencil in his metronomic kicks and mechanical passes.

Dylan Hartley

(Photo by Ashley Western – MB Media via Getty Images)

Momentum is the central theme for Eddie. When he has it, he is a prickly ball of prickiness, and can’t easily be eaten.

And so he has named a backline with clear roles and simple minds. He has more than twice as many backline caps (402) in his matchday 23 as the foxy Bok coach (160 caps with only 71 caps for his four halves, compared to 266 caps for hedgehogs Farrell, George Ford, Ben Youngs, and Danny Care).

He’s gone big, dropping Ford to the bench to supersize his midfield and double down in the second half with big unit Manu Tuilagi.

Rassie has a few foxes missing, however: Faf de Klerk is from Sale, and won’t be permitted by Sale to play against other Sale players who play for England. Faf outfoxed Aaron Smith, Will Genia, and himself at times, during the Rugby Championship. Willie le Roux the Wasp (but as foxlike devious as any fullback who ever played) is also sidelined, despite England having their Wasps at their disposal.

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The Boks’ inexperienced back three of Damian Willemse, S’bu Nkosi, and Aphiwe Dyantyi only average five caps apiece, and will surely face a barrage of skyscraping kicks from Eddie’s foursome of experienced halves. Misplace or mistime any of those, however, and the dancing of Willemse and Dyantyi may mesmerise the England defence.

Erasmus is a tinkerer, a thinker, and a gambler. Sometimes, he over thinks.

He is putting this interesting loose trio on the park, knowing he has a turnover machine at hooker in Malcolm Marx and a very lively lock duo (the brilliant Cape duo of Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit is reunited, both of whom now lead forward pods on attack, steal lineouts, and carry incessantly). The wispy Warren Whiteley at eight, superhero Thor Vermuelen up against Brad Shields at blindside, and Captain Kolisi the deck warrior duelling a very fine opensider Tom Curry.

Bongi Mbonambi and Pieter-Steph du Toit celebrate

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Mark Wilson, Curry, and Shields will try to burrow into the ball with a little help from Hartley and Maro Itoje, whilst the Bok pack has seven foraging forwards (only forlorn Frans Malherbe tries to stay out of breakdown contests). And this is where the fox really gets tricky: In the second half, his loosehead lock, Du Toit, will shift over to flank, Thor to eight, and two new locks will bulldoze on: Lood de Jager and RG Snyman.

Can a pack be any bigger than this, and still be fast?

At 130 kilograms a piece, Thomas du Toit and Wilco Louw will be the props, with monstrous Marx probably playing almost the whole game, giants Etzebeth or Lood and Snyman, Du Toit on the side, and Thor at the back.

The battle of the front rows cannot be prognosticated, but very few two-three combos this year have withstood the pressure of Kitshoff and Marx in tandem.

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Any dominance by the Boks here will not be the hedgehog’s fault: props in the Premiership have been decimated this year.

Perth-raised Alec Hepburn will win his third cap and experience the joys of grappling with the awkward Malherbe. Ben Moon will win his first cap in the second half.

The Kitshoff and Kyle Sinckler battle will be one of the best sideshows in the test.

The battle of the packs usually dictates this rivalry, and England will field only 213 caps (120 caps for 13 forwards, if Hartley’s 93 are subtracted) against a battle-hardened Bok corps of forwards.

But if the halfbacks decide this bout, one would think Youngs and Care have a mammoth advantage over Ivan van Zyl, who was shaky in Washington and Embrose Papier (albeit Papier might just be the quickest Bok of all).

If long-range kicking is the key, Daly has few peers, and if it is accuracy under pressure, Farrell has the slight edge over Pollard, who always strikes the ball purely, but sometimes just sets up skew.

The Springbok defensive system has gelled since the England series in June, but it places a high premium on youngsters Jesse Kriel, Dyantyi and Nkosi timing their explosive salients out of the line.

When Tuilagi makes it on in the second half, he may have the unusual experience of running into a bigger man opposite him: Andre ‘the Giant’ Esterhuizen, all 6 foot 5 and 113 kg of him.

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The End of Year Tour is getting off to a cracking start with this grand old ‘derby.’

Jones will try to limit the counter-attacking chances of the lethal Bok finishers, and reduce the touches of Vermeulen and Marx.

Speaking from training grounds in Portugal, Jones explained.

“We’ve become very well organised in our set-piece and have done a lot of good work in Portugal over the last week,” said Jones.

“We have put in a new defence system and our attack looks more organised than it was on the South Africa tour. Against South Africa you have got the physical battle up front and then you have to be tactically smart in how you attack against them. We need to find ways to gain momentum, then once we find momentum, convert that to points.”

Erasmus will attempt to build a higher tempo than the young English forwards can live with, and create broken field scenarios aplenty. His teams use the least typical stacked blindside attack scheme in the top tier, and Jacques Nienaber’s Munster-Stormer modified rush-drift-rover defence system is so novel it even confuses his own team.

Erasmus told reporters in London that his side were up for the challenge.

“It’s going to be spicy and interesting and we are going to play with a few young chaps in front of a big crowd, so it’s going to be a big challenge for them,” said Erasmus.

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At home, with over 80,000 fans ready to sing about the chariot being sweet, England’s hedgehogs must be considered four or five-point favourites, but this fixture has been competitive forever, and it’s not going to shock anyone if this talented Bok pack gets the upper hand over the callow opposition.

As is often the case in test rugby, a player we are not talking about now just might be the one we are lauding after the match.

My best guess? The Foxy Boks by less than a converted try, a couple of cards for the hedgehogs in the English pack, and an aggregate combined score of between 55 and 60.