Rugby Union: Bridge too far looms for England's infantry

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IT MAY be the age of the whistle-stop tour, but this is almost certainly the last time England will engage in a southern hemisphere itinerary of such Herculean proportions. Not even the All Blacks, notorious gluttons for rugby punishment, can quite understand how Twickenham's gin and tonic brigade came to accept a schedule that condemned the poor bloody infantry of the national team to a jet-lagged visit to South Africa at the fag end of a unprecedentedly vicious six-match stint in Australia and New Zealand.

According to John Hart, the All Black coach, England have saddled themselves with "an awfully big ask". As he weighed up the pros and cons of his side's 30-point victory over the tourists in Auckland at the weekend, he questioned the logic behind this last leg of the summer sojourn by saying: "I can only think that an administrative blunder has occurred. South Africa is never anything other than a massive test of a nation's rugby resources and to make this sort of trip for a Test without the benefit of a warm- up match or even adequate preparation time is an interesting move, to say the least."

Not to put too fine a point on it, those Marco Polos responsible for the most taxing England programme in living memory should forget all about branching out into the travel business and stick to pumping up rugby balls. Senior England figures have privately voiced their intense dissatisfaction with a schedule that not only exposed them to a one-off Test in Australia without the benefit of a warm-up, but also to a five-match New Zealand leg that could hardly have been more labour intensive.

And now they must play the Springboks, fresh from a 90-point obliteration of the Welsh, within five days of making a desperately convoluted flight from Auckland to Cape Town via Hong Kong. "The match is on the books, so we'll make the best of it," promised Clive Woodward, the England coach, who has already taken steps to erase a similar southern hemisphere adventure from next year's schedules. "It's a matter of shrugging off the jet-lag over a couple of days and then putting together as much as possible in the space of two training sessions.

"To my mind, South Africa are currently playing the most formidable rugby of any nation in the world; irrespective of the positives we were able to take from the second Test with the All Blacks, the Springboks' performance against Wales brought us back to earth with a splat. We on the coaching staff are not Merlins and we aren't in a position to conjure up miracles. We know the measure of the task we face this weekend."

Clive Woodward has told Bath's Kevin Yates, two weeks away from completing a six-month ban for ear-biting, that he could still figure in England's World Cup squad next year. Woodward has also indicated that Josh Lewsey, Jos Baxendell, Tom Beim, Rob Fidler and Pat Sanderson - the handful of players who can be deemed successes on the current tour - are similarly in contention.

Woodward said: "I have spoken with Kevin and he is a definite potential for the World Cup and the 30 or 35 players I intend getting together. He has done what Neil Back did when he was suspended, used the period well for fitness work, and I will certainly hold nothing against him in terms of England squads."

Walter Little, the All Black centre, has reportedly turned down a lucrative offer to play in England with Wasps and instead agreed new terms with the New Zealand Football Union and his club North Harbour.