England prepared to save their best until the last

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If Australia are the most admired of the 16 sides in South Africa, then England are the most feared and are regarded, not least by the Australians, as the ones to avoid. Hence their high anxiety about losing to South Africa in Cape Town today.

On their day - and they have had a few lately - England know they are capable of beating any one of the other leading contenders for the World Cup, even the holders, the hosts and certainly Argentina, whom they meet on Saturday.

But having the capability does not mean it is actually going to happen, as these same England players know from their wildly varying experiences here a year ago. The crushing victory over the Springboks in the first 1994 Test followed by the equally crushing defeat in the second did at least persuade them that nothing should be taken for granted.

First, they went in at Pretoria without a chance after losing four of the five lead-up fixtures; then a week later, the Springboks' prospects were much the same in Cape Town. England, winners of the former and losers of the latter, are often accused of being predictable, but never when they were in South Africa last year.

On the logical grounds that they wished to avoid reaching their peak in 1995 until May/June - preferably 24 June - the tour of South Africa and everything that has happened since have had a dream-like perfection. England even managed to win the Five Nations' Championship and do the Grand Slam without playing terribly well or even greatly exerting themselves.

If this leaves their best to last, it will accord precisely with the sentiment Will Carling expressed well over a year ago to the effect that there would be no point producing fine rugby during 1994 or the domestic part of 1995 if England then regressed as soon as they were faced with the World Cup.

As this has happened, so Carling's team have won themselves some unlikely approval. Even Bob Dwyer, the Australian coach, who has been known to call England names when it has suited, now feels the compunction to talk them up. Psychological warfare or not, he insists he means what he says.

"Their performances in the Five Nations were absolutely outstanding," Dwyer said. "England came within a whisker of winning the World Cup last time, but now they are a much more complete team and much less predictable in attack. I would certainly be happy with my side if they had been producing the same level of performance."

Is this really the same Bob Dwyer who delighted in chiding England that they were "boring" before the Wallabies beat them in the last World Cup final? If England have convinced even him, then they really do have the capacity to go all the way.

Never mind the backs; good as they may be, it is the England forwards who trouble the minds of every team they might meet on their passage. But the great imponderable is how they adapt this time to South African conditions - better, they hope, than in 1994 - and if we are to accept the evidence of their training sessions in the week since they arrived in Durban, they are every bit as comfortable as the Argentinians, their opponents at King's Park on Saturday, who have been suggesting their familiarity with heat and humidity will give them an important advantage.

The Italians and especially the Samoans, who complete Group B, could say much the same, but in the end it will make no difference, because we may be sure England's World Cup will be made or broken by the quarter- final they must play against the losers of today's opening match between South Africa and Australia.

Carling has had reasonable cause for complaint that his team have been stuffed by the draw but since they have been here, thank goodness, he has given up bleating about it. He has at last shown the hard-nosed attitude that if England are to go one better than last time, they will probably have to beat all three of the big southern-hemisphere rugby powers, one after the other.

That would be the greatest achievement in the history of English rugby, not only for the obvious reason that it would win the World Cup but also because hardly any English rugby men abroad have played with the consistency, let alone the acumen and ability, to win more than an occasional game.

Despite the draw, this time the signs are promising that it could be different, the silly contretemps between Carling and the Rugby Football Union having had the unintended effect of pulling all the players together behind his captaincy, when previously not all of them had necessarily been whole-hearted admirers.

If the "old farts" at Twickenham had had their way, the seven-year captain would no longer be at the helm, and one imagines that with his captaincy would have gone England's World Cup chance. Is that what they really wanted? Quite possibly so.

Steve Bale