England blunder into the wasteland

INTERNATIONAL RUGBY UNION: Inept start to Rowell's revolution as southern hemisphere asserts customary superiority
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The Independent Online
STEVE BALE

reports from Twickenham England 14 South Africa 24

So many questions were asked - most of them left unanswered - by England's most comprehensive home defeat by the Springboks that Jack Rowell could be excused if he had less idea than ever of how his side should best proceed.

There are horny dilemmas in English rugby on which the manager, always careful to have his off-the-field defences prepared, finds himself impaled, partly because of what lies ahead. Neither a match against Western Samoa nor, more especially, the Five Nations' Championship, is of the requisite consequence in global terms.

Big talk, small rugby. Once Mike Catt had given up his early impersonation of the Rob Andrew kicking game he had denigrated, England really did try to move the ball in a style to which they are self- admittedly unaccustomed. And in doing so, they perversely revealed that they would probably have been better off not doing so.

This was not because the principle was at fault. Far from it; if Rowell knows one thing after his 18 months attempting - and so far, let it be said, failing - to guide England in an unfamiliar direction, it is that in general terms the old way of bludgeoning oppositions into submission is a defective philosophy to propound in the most exalted company.

But in the specific circumstances of this match it would patently have been better, or at least less bad, to revert to these traditional low- risk methods, to have had the prosaic reliability of Dean Richards, to have had Andrew driving the world champions back to the corners. In other words to have done precisely the same as when the All Blacks were beaten here two years earlier.

It depends absolutely on the priority. Does Rowell, or rather do England, want to build for the present or for the future, knowing that in the past the best long-term planning was always the simple expedient of winning the next match? What serves English rugby better: to defeat South Africa by whatever means or to lose with good intentions?

The trouble was that this was neither. However creditably England strove to play as good a game as they ceaselessly talk, their skill levels were so wanting and their execution of the well-meant handling policy so clumsy that the situation cried out for someone in authority to insist on something more measured. Instead, England blundered on.

That is down to leadership, whether from Will Carling as captain or Catt as outside-half and therefore tactical linchpin. While everyone yearns for the triumph of instinct and ambition this can hardly happen when so many players, even such senior ones as Carling and Rory Underwood, have so vague an idea of what to do or where and when to do it.

For Catt this was come-uppance in plenty after his disparaging remarks about Francois Pienaar, the Springbok captain. "Average" is now the noble Pienaar's nickname in the South African squad but if the sobriquet applied to anyone at Twickenham it was Catt - which is not to deny his comprehensive gifts as a player, merely to suggest he should let them rather than his loose tongue do the talking.

That it did not happen in this game was down to his own poor performance but also a wider slow-wittedness among the England team. In the matches to come this will matter less, which is part of England's difficulty, but against as implacable an opposition as this such a litany of errors was sheer indulgence.

You can complain, as Rowell did, about the inadequacy of league rugby as preparation or the inevitable inequality and inequity of a contest between England's semi-professionals playing the Springbok full-timers. But in the end England were beaten not only by the South Africans but by themselves.

They won just as much possession but had less idea of how to use it and, critically, England could produce none of the flashes of individual brilliance with which Chester Williams and Joost van der Westhuizen between them scored the three Springbok tries. These two, Andre Joubert, Ruben Kruger and Mr Average are players for whom in this nation-building, World Cup year inspiration has become a commonplace.

Indeed for England it could have been still worse. On the one hand, South Africa were penalised to distraction, 27-7, by Jim Fleming; on the other, Joel Stransky, the World Cup final winner, missed six of nine kicks at goal. The one consolation was that this failure-rate was poetic justice for his off- the-ball assault on Ben Clarke when the No 8 was already fighting with Mark Andrews. Stransky was fortunate to escape with a reproof from Fleming on the merciful say-so of his touch-judge Ray Megson.

The game was into its protracted injury-time when Phil de Glanville, the replacement for Carling, pulled back an inconsequential try for England. Their best rugby was fashioned when the Springboks were at the point of exhaustion at the end of their epic year of endless victory: 10 in all to make a winning run of 14, only three off the international record set by the New Zealand sides of the late Sixties.

As South Africa's next two Tests are in Australia and New Zealand, the record will probably remain unbroken and as 1996's 11 Tests include five against the All Blacks and two against the Wallabies it would require a sporting miracle for the Springboks to continue as they have in '95. Never mind, this annus mirabilis was miracle enough.

England: Try De Glanville; Penalties Callard 3. South Africa: Tries Williams 2, Van der Westhuizen; Penalties Stransky 3.

ENGLAND: J Callard (Bath); D Hopley (Wasps), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), J Guscott (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); M Catt (Bath), K Bracken (Bristol); J Leonard (Harlequins), M Regan (Bristol), V Ubogu (Bath), M Johnson (Leicester), M Bayfield, T Rodber (Northampton), B Clarke, A Robinson (Bath). Replacements: L Dallaglio (Wasps) for Rodber, 66; P de Glanville (Bath) for Carling, 76.

SOUTH AFRICA: A Joubert (Natal); J Olivier (Northern Transvaal), J Mulder, H le Roux (Transvaal), C Williams; J Stransky (Western Province), J van der Westhuizen (Northern Transvaal); A van der Linde (Western Province), J Dalton (Transvaal), T Laubscher (Western Province), J Wiese (Transvaal), M Andrews (Natal), F van Heerden (Western Province), F Pienaar (Transvaal, capt), R Kruger (Northern Transvaal). Replacements: J Small (Natal) for Olivier, 47; R Straeuli (Transvaal) for Kruger, 63.

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).

South Africa's unbeaten run

6 August 1994 v New Zealand (Auckland) drew 18-18

8 October v Argentina (Port Elizabeth) won 42-22

15 October v Argentina (Johannesburg) won 46-26

19 November v Scotland (Murrayfield) won 34-10

26 November v Wales (Cardiff)

won 20-12

13 April 1995 v W Samoa (Johannesburg) won 60-8

25 May v Australia (Cape Town)

won 27-18

30 May v Romania (Cape Town)

won 21-8

3 June v Canada (Port Elizabeth)

won 20-0

10 June v W Samoa (Johannesburg) won 42-14

17 June v France (Durban)

won 19-15

24 June v New Zealand (Johannesburg) won 15-12

2 September v Wales (Johannesburg) won 40-11

12 November v Italy (Rome

won 40-21

18 November v England (Twickenham) won 24-14

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