The coming month of high-profile internationals will give rugby its turn in the sporting spotlight after the Olympics' golden summer turned to the mucky dust of football's race rows and referee ructions. The former England hooker Brian Moore, among others, has been forthright over what the oval-ball game has to offer its less well-rounded cousin.
Mike up the referees, said Moore, and football's filthy backchat would be over in weeks. Danny Care, the England scrum-half and devoted Liverpool fan, is more equivocal, unsurprisingly, as his own brushes with the law have not been good for rugby's reputation in the past year.
"You just know in rugby you don't swear at the referee," says Care. "You call refs 'Sir' in rugby still and that doesn't happen in football. If the referees let themselves get spoken to like that it is their own fault really, it is so ingrained that it is just taken as read that you can do it. If I was a footballer I would probably do it as well. In rugby sometimes you lose your head and shout something but I just duck behind one of the forwards and pretend it wasn't me."
There will be 80,000-plus crowds at each of England's QBE Internationals over the next four weeks, thousands of column inches in newspapers and plenty of coverage on television. There is also a case being looked into by the Rugby Football Union of a 33-year-old amateur player, Gavin Connor, complaining that he has been racially abused during matches.
Yet it is clear that professional football to Care – for all his 33 England rugby caps and Premiership winner's medal with Harlequins this year – is a game and a life fundamentally different to his own, not least after he was dismissed by Sheffield Wednesday as too small to be a striker at the age of 15. Living near Chelsea's training ground in Surrey, he likes to spot the stars driving past, and retweeted a photo of Luis Suarez's mock dive in front of David Moyes last weekend.
"That was good banter, I thought," Care says. "We'll never be as much in the spotlight as the footballers are. And deservedly so, with the amount of money they get paid. I wouldn't mind it if we got paid that much money."
Care and the rest of the England rugby squad had a taste of the top footballers' regime by training at the FA's St George's Park for five days last week. The head coach, Stuart Lancaster, kicked off with 35 one-to-one meetings of 15 minutes each and invited the cyclist Bradley Wiggins in on Wednesday evening to give a pep talk. But Lancaster surely had little new ground to cover with Care: the coach was in charge at Leeds when Care joined the academy in 2003; when Lancaster was appointed by England last December, temporarily to begin with, he immediately name-checked his former charge for his leadership qualities.
Then Care was pulled up for drink-driving on New Year's Day, lost his licence for a year, was fined £10,000 by his club and thrown out of the England squad for the Six Nations' Championship. He was also arrested for being drunk and disorderly last December, and again in March; the latter for taking a pee by a wall. It was a juddering halt to a fine run of 32 appearances in 34 Tests before a toe injury on the eve of the 2011 World Cup ruled Care out of the tournament in New Zealand.
"I'm playing as good as I've ever played," Care says now. "In the past I'd have a couple of good games then a couple of not-so-good games, but now I've started to put in regular performances. It makes my life a lot easier when the Quins forwards play as they have done this season."
It would be easy yet wrong to view the 25-year-old's sizzling form – showcasing his speed off the mark, vision and eye for a try – simply as a reaction to the off-the-field misdemeanours. Really it is the continuation of a revival that began during the 2010-11 season and ran the course of Harlequins' title-winning 2011-12 campaign, toe injury and other escapades notwithstanding. The true dip was a couple of years ago, when Leicester's Ben Youngs had burst on the scene and Care plateaued after his own emergence internationally in 2008.
Even so, he admits that missing this year's Six Nations was "the hardest thing I've ever had to take. Knowing I was fit and on form but not playing for your country through your own mistakes. I still go out and enjoy myself but I think I know the boundaries now, which probably before I neglected and didn't really realise, or forgot a bit. I know when to get out of situations now."
He returned for England's Third Test in South Africa in June and should be ahead of Youngs and Northampton's Lee Dickson to face Fiji next Saturday.
Australia, South Africa and New Zealand will follow; the All Blacks are collecting more than £1 million for playing England on 1 December, by when the line-up for Fiji may have changed significantly.
Chris Ashton, Ben Foden, Alex Corbisiero, Tom Croft and Dylan Hartley are definite absentees next week, and Courtney Lawes and Jonathan Joseph are major doubts. That leaves a XV looking like this: Alex Goode, Charlie Sharples, Manu Tuilagi, Brad Barritt, Ugo Monye, Toby Flood, Care, Joe Marler or Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs or David Paice (with Quins' Joe Gray on standby), Dan Cole, Tom Palmer or Mouritz Botha, Geoff Parling, Tom Johnson or Tom Wood, Tom Waldrom and the captain, Chris Robshaw.
Factor in the half-dozen players unavailable due to international retirement or playing for French clubs, and it is a severe stress-test of Lancaster's diligent planning. Of the four players ever-present in the coach's eight matches to date, only Dan Cole is currently available (the others were Ashton, Foden and Hartley).
"It would be nice to win all four but a good performance in all four would be good as well," Care says, before agreeing that rugby "is a results business". Just like football, then? "They need to get video referees in there because it's killing the game." And killing a certain scrum-half's accumulator bets, too, he adds with the grin of a self-confessed "cheeky northerner".
On their way: southern hemisphere teams aiming to make their mark
Fiji, ranked 14th in the world, had a disappointing 2011 World Cup so must qualify for 2015, unlike their Pacific rivals Tonga and Samoa, who are through automatically. Mind you, qualifying for Fiji means winning a single match against one out of American Samoa, Cook Islands, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tahiti and Vanuatu in 2014. The flying Fijians winged into Moscow to face Russia yesterday — with England, Gloucester, Ireland A and Georgia to come — with 16 uncapped players alongside the Leicester wing Vereniki Goneva but not the Gloucester flanker Akapusi Qera. The mighty Exeter centre Sireli Naqelevuki was another being spared the trip until injuries forced his inclusion on Thursday.
Having finished third at the World Cup, the Wallabies' 2012 season started in June with a 9-6 loss to Scotland in a monsoon, then a 3-0 whitewash of Wales, though by a combined margin of only 11 points across the three Tests. Fly-half Quade Cooper has since been fined for questioning coach Robbie Deans's tactics and is injured. But the outstanding flanker David Pocock is fit to travel with the Aussies, who won three and lost three in the Rugby Championship from August to October before drawing with the All Blacks in the Bledisloe Cup. The venerable lock Nathan Sharpe is captain but baby-faced back James O'Connor misses his country's final rehearsal for next summer's Lions tour.
Done over in their eyes, and those of many others, by dodgy refereeing in losing to Australia in the World Cup quarter-finals, the Springboks regrouped under new coach Heyneke Meyer to scrape a 2-0 verdict over England, with one draw, at home in June. Next came the Rugby Championship, with a draw in Argentina and home wins over the Pumas and Wallabies. Five uncapped players make this trip and the Saracens hooker Schalk Brits is picked for the first time since 2008: not as a direct replacement for the injured wing Bryan Habana, though there is a passing resemblance in some of Brits' sprints.
Unbeaten since winning the World Cup in October 2011 but blew a world-record-equalling 17th straight Test win (let's not count the 18 of Lithuania) when they drew with Australia in Brisbane two weeks ago. Uber-luminaries Richie McCaw and Dan Carter will be on tour alongside Kieran Read, the No 8 rated by England forwards coach Graham Rowntree as the world's best. The All Blacks cleaned up in the inaugural Rugby Championship with six straight wins against Australia, South Africa and Argentina. Critics spy weaknesses at the scrum and bemoan a reliance on cagey kicking. Wishful thinking?
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