Dean Ryan's midweekers, who more or less know that is what they will remain, should take no comfort from the supposition that Orange Free State, their opponents 3,000ft up in Bloemfontein, are among the weakest of South Africa's six Test unions.
The Free State team contain only one capped player, the hooker Naka Droske, who won his place when the Springboks were in Argentina last October. Two others, the prop Andre-Henri le Roux and the scrum-half Hentie Martens, also made that tour. This would scarcely intimidate England if they were at Test strength, but Jack Rowell's resolve to leave his best for Saturday's Natal game back in Durban threatens to rebound sharply - if, that is, the new manager were to regard such a defeat as a setback.
He is well aware France lost two and drew one of their non-Test matches here last year, an ostensibly dismal record that became irrelevant once they had won the series. England would be delighted with the same, though if their Test selection is already clear-cut the debate over the outside-half position will not be so swiftly resolved.
Stuart Barnes is doubtful for tomorrow because of a flu-type ailment which yesterday confined him to bed and, according to Rowell, is not certain of playing on Saturday if he has to drop out. Rob Andrew took his place in practice, a session shortened for Brian Moore by a tweaked hamstring.
Rowell has to tread a more diplomatic path than when his responsibilities were more parochial, or indeed once he had added England B to Bath on his coaching cv. But everything he said in those days insisted Barnes was a better stand-off than Andrew and if Andrew stays first choice it means either Rowell has consented to being selectorially outvoted or that his views have undergone a sea- change.
For now, the squad should enjoy it while they may. Durban is where England play their group matches in next year's World Cup. And apart from the social advantages of this most anglicised of South African cities, the delayed departure accords with the theory that altitude problems are better surmounted this way than by acclimatising on the veld over a period.
Orange Free State (v England, Bloemfontein, tomorrow): A Pawson; C Badenhorst, B Venter, E Lubbe, D van Rensburg; F Smith, H Martens; A-H le Roux, N Droske (capt), D Heymans, R Opperman, B Els, A Venter, J van Solms, A Cloete. Replacements: M Ehrentraut, T Kirkham, C Marais, H Boshoff, H Muller, J Coetzee.Reuse content