Chris Hewett says the South Africans are back up to speed after a cathartic spell in the rugby union slow lane.
Ian McGeechan, the Lions coach on the high veldt last summer, famously depicted his victorious team's style of play as "15-man rugby without the ball". If England attempt to pull a similar stunt at Twickenham this afternoon, they will drown in a sea of Springbok points; to beat the world champions with a strategy based on hostile tackling and flawless goal-kicking, you need Scott Gibbs and Neil Jenkins rather than Nick Greenstock and Mike Catt.
Besides, these South Africans are a very different kettle of trouble to the strangely one-dimensional unit on which the Lions poured lashings of cold water in Cape Town and Durban. Nick Mallett, the hugely capable philosopher king from deepest Hertfordshire who succeeded Carel du Plessis as national coach in September, has hit the ground running by restoring a sense of purpose and responsibility to the rich and diverse talents at his disposal. As Jake White, the Springboks' technical advisor, said this week: "We know where we're heading now. We're heading towards the World Cup in 1999."
Roger Uttley, the England manager, also had something to say on the subject yesterday and it was not calculated to bring comfort and serenity to the home dressing room. "Psychologically, the Lions' victory in the summer may well work against us, because I get the feeling it has made the Boks more focused than ever," he admitted. Focused enough to stick 50-odd points on the French in Paris last weekend. Focused enough to go after Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill and the other English Lions today with the whiff of revenge in their nostrils.
If expectations of an English victory over the All Blacks at Old Trafford were so low as to border on the subterranean, they are scarcely any higher this time round. Martin Johnson's aggression will be badly missed; if the Leicester lock's partiality towards the occasional cheap shot has cost him a cap, it has also cost the English engine room its single most valuable piece of heavy machinery. Neither does Phil de Glanville's absence help the cause. The Bath centre may not be the quickest thing on two legs, but he tackled himself to a standstill in Manchester last weekend and was relishing the prospect of giving Henry Honiball, Dick Muir and Andre Snyman some of the same.
Much depends on the contribution of Darren Garforth, the Leicester tight- head prop, and the reshaped back row of Dallaglio, Hill and Neil Back. If Garforth fails to neutralise the mighty Os du Randt by fair means or foul - Paul Wallace, the smiling Irish Lion, chose the latter course last summer and somehow got away with it - the English scrum will go back so quickly that the threequarters will find themselves calling moves from the middle tier of the north stand. If he does the business, though, the loose trio may well ask the Boks an unanswerable question or two.
Dallaglio was in majestic form against New Zealand and England require something similar from their captain on this occasion. Sensibly, he is not even contemplating a Lions-style exercise in barricade construction. "There were times during the summer when the Lions felt more comfortable without the ball than with it," he conceded. "If England can show the same ambition in attack as the Lions showed in defence, we're in for a cracking game of rugby.
"It's about results, yes, but it's about performance, too. We want to create scoring opportunities as well as deny those opportunities to the opposition."
For Clive Woodward and the rest of the England backroom team - a unit strengthened yesterday by the confirmation of Phil Larder, the former Great Britain rugby league coach, in a full-time advisory role - victory over the South Africans would be pure nectar. Thanks to the unprecedented demands of this four-Test autumn programme, the new regime is still on honeymoon. No European side has ever been exposed to such a mountainous challenge, let alone a young and inexperienced English outfit still feeling its way in the big wide world. However, a second successive defeat after an unsatisfying draw would send just a little unease seeping into the inner sanctum.
For the long-term sake of England's national team, it is vital that Woodward holds his nerve, retains his vision and continues to back what is obviously a bold and adventurous line in rugby judgement. But for the sake of the coach's short-term sanity, he could do with the rub of the green. Will Dallaglio and company win him some breathing space this afternoon? For heaven's sake, don't bet your pension on it.
ENGLAND v SOUTH AFRICA
M Perry Bath 15 P Montgomery W Province
J Bentley Newcastle 14 J Small W Province
W Greenwood Leicester 13 A Snyman N Transvaal
P de Glanville Bath 12 D Muir W Province
D Rees Sale 11 P Rossouw W Province
M Catt Bath 10 H Honiball Natal
M Dawson Northampton 9 W Swanepoel Free State
J Leonard Harlequins 1 O du Randt Free State
R Cockerill Leicester 2 J Dalton Gauteng
D Garforth Leicester 3 A Garvey Natal
D Grewcock Saracens 4 M Andrews Natal
G Archer Newcastle 5 K Otto N Transvaal
L Dallaglio Wasps, capt 6 A Aitken W Province
R Hill Saracens 8 G Teichmann Natal, capt
N Back Leicester 7 A Venter Free State
Referee: C Hawke (New Zealand) Kick-off: 2.0 (Sky Sports 2)Reuse content