Rugby Union: Banana-skin England slip into the mire: Rowell's tourists mauled by mundane opposition

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Natal . . .21

England. . .6

AT TIMES like this, there are few straws to clutch at and anyway, on the salutary evidence adduced at King's Park, in clutching England would probably fumble. So thank heavens for the Springboks; with their 57-man squad meeting in Pretoria today, they are in even deeper disarray.

Alas for England, it is a minor consolation because this was their immediate past as well as prospective Test team laid low by mundane opposition who were Currie Cup and Super 10 runners-up but performed only marginally better than England. There are many South Africans who consider Natal, and still more so Transvaal, who follow next Saturday, superior to the Springboks - in which case the Springboks must be awful.

It is a convenient theory but the tourists will rely on its veracity at their peril. Here, England's destiny was in their own hands and they could not hold tight. They dropped too many passes, gave away too much possession, expended too much nervous energy going nowhere. Against the Banana Boys, they trod on every available skin.

The defeat typified the contrast between the England sides who play in the northern and southern hemispheres. 'This is a big team and they didn't play big,' Jack Rowell, the manager, said. 'We ended the Five Nations' Championship on a high and the team looked good and well-balanced. That team has not simply evaporated.'

Strange to relate that at the outset of the tour, at the very moment when there was a valid excuse for sticking with the tried, trusted and trite, England's attacking plan was actually quite bold. But they did not look as if they quite believed in it and Natal's staunch defence assisted in turning this boldness into complication and clumsiness.

The exchanges duly descended into a an irksome series of stops and starts, the consequence of which was that place-kicking accuracy was more or less bound to be decisive. Rob Andrew kicked two of nine penalties for England; Andre Joubert and Henry Honiball between them seven of eight for Natal.

The result was as banal as that, never mind that England had done enough at line-out and scrum to warrant something less conclusive. The trouble was that when they opened up in the first half they chose Bath-style flat passing moves of such intricacy that they demanded not only perfect precision of pass and running line but also the basic will to make them work.

The first is practical, so can be practised. The other is in the mind and so infinitely more problematic if you are locked, as England back play has often been, into low-risk or even no-risk rugby. Indeed as the tourists slipped ever deeper into the mire, the ingrained caution that Rowell wishes to dispel reasserted itself in a number of instances when safety had more allure than a more daring alternative.

It is an unconscionable waste and Rowell, who was unwilling to tolerate under-achievement as coach of Bath, will not do so now he is manager of England. How the comfortable coterie of senior pros who wielded such influence towards the end of the previous era of Geoff Cooke respond to a Rowell tongue-lashing will probably determine the fate of the tour.

'We need to sharpen up everyone's attitude,' may well have been the manager's most significant post-match comment given that some of his players have, more or less unchallenged, been round the England team for a long, long time. Rowell has boxed himself into a corner by so clearly differentiating between his midweek and weekend teams and now that both have lost he has almost run out of options.

'This Saturday team has looked light years on from the Wednesday one, as we would expect,' he said. The implications are that the second string have no incentive

beyond the vague hope of a World Cup place next year and at the same time the Test team are encouraged to regard themselves as sacrosanct.

If they listened to Wahl Bartmann, the esteemed Springbok who leads Natal, they would be confirmed in that self-regard. 'The side that we played against is a good side and we had better be careful for the Tests,' said the man whose middle name is Justice, which in fact was tempering justice with a merciful magnanimity based on reputation rather than performance.

At least England ought now to improve - always supposing they are capable of turning uncomfortable new experiences to practical use. This is what Will Carling, the captain, has been banging on about ever since his squad arrived in South Africa and in defeat he was at it again.

But even accepting that England are never too old to learn, their educational obsession leaves them in serious danger of allowing the World Cup 12 months hence to become a distraction when they should be concentrating on the here and now. 'The tour is all about learning,' Carling intoned, when what he should be saying is that it is all about winning.

Natal: Penalties Joubert 4, Honiball 3. England: Penalties Andrew 2.

NATAL: A Joubert (Harlequins); J Enslin (Crusaders), P Muller (College Rovers), D Muir (Crusaders), C van der Westhuizen (Harlequins); H Honiball (Police), K Putt (Empangeni); G Kebble (College Rovers), J Allan (Glenwood OB), A Garvey, S Atherton (Crusaders), M Andrews (Natal University), W Bartmann (Crusaders, capt), G Teichmann (College Rovers), A Blakeway (Durban HSOB). Replacements: D Morkel (Crusaders) for Kebble, 8; A Marinos (Crusaders) for Van der Westhuizen, 52. Temporary substitute: J Plumtree (Crusaders) for Bartmann, 28-31.

ENGLAND: D Pears (Harlequins); T Underwood (Leicester), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), P de Glanville (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); R Andrew (Wasps), D Morris (Orrell); J Leonard, B Moore (Harlequins), V Ubogu (Bath), M Johnson (Leicester), N Redman (Bath), T Rodber (Northampton), D Richards (Leicester), B Clarke (Bath). Replacements: S Ojomoh (Bath) for Richards, h/t; S Barnes (Bath) for Pears, 63.

Referee: M Franken (Kimberley).

(Photograph omitted)