Rugby Union: England mislay the Plan B blueprint: Hollow ring to tourists' excuses for poor performances. Steve Bale reports from Pretoria

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The Independent Online
IT'S all so unfair. Whenever England go on a tour, they encounter beastly referees intent on doing them a mischief. Even in the Five Nations' Championship it always takes someone from France or the southern hemisphere before the worst comes to the worst.

This, at any rate, is how they perceive it and whatever the validity of their argument it is diametrically different from how a New Zealander or Australian would approach an inimical referee. Antipodeans usually manage to work it out as they go, adapt accordingly and leave the moaning until they have won.

Here in South Africa we have seen the best team in the Five Nations reduced to mediocrity, and who is to blame? The referees? To a degree. Themselves? Most certainly. England have lost two and scraped through one of their three matches and while defeat against the Currie Cup champions, Transvaal, in Johannesburg tomorrow would not be terminal it would be calamitously demoralising.

Any student of English rugby over the past half- dozen or so successful years would be bound to conclude that when fresh alternatives need to be chosen England are hopeless. So the stop-start games in Bloemfontein, Durban and Potchefstroom have merely followed a pattern.

Wales 1989, Scotland 1990, Wales 1993, Ireland 1994 together demonstrated that if a Plan B had been worked out everyone had forgotten it. Now they have to cope with intolerant referees and in their failure admit they are virtually helpless. 'We have had three different referees who have each refereed the game differently,' Dick Best, the coach, grumbled.

The management have assiduously sought out their referees before each game, politely asking what requirements they might have, only to find that in reality Messrs Lombard, Franken and Heilbron have conducted themselves other than they had indicated. As ever it is the line- out, which the late South African Rugby Board president, Danie Craven, years ago labelled 'the bastard child of rugby', that has become the greatest impossibility.

In their frustration, England see themselves as deliberately targeted victims and privately reckon they are being cheated. 'Crossing the line doesn't come into it except when we do it,' Best said. 'On their ball the idea is that they are expected to win it and the moment we try to compete we are being penalised.'

England are equally unhappy with the refereeing of the loose ball, with what they see as the South African propensity for diving - with impunity - over the top. But they might also care to look at themselves, at the under-

performance of their own players.

Already there is a similarity with the Argentina tour of 1990 when most of the development players who made the trip returned with reputations unenhanced and their confidence in shreds. Now, as then, is it the selectors' fault for picking them, or the players' for playing poorly? A bit of both.

Paul Hull was one such, his visit to Argentina coming when he was not ready and his career has taken four years to recover. In those days he was learning to be an outside- half; now he is a full-back and after two conspicuous Wednesday performances he was yesterday named in the team to play Transvaal.

More of the same against the Golden Lions and he is bound to win his first cap in the first Test in Pretoria next Saturday, though for now he does not dare think about it. 'Every game to me is like a Test game,' he said after England had trained at Loftus Versfeld.

The tourists had stayed in Pretoria rather than make the pre-planned drive to Johannesburg to train at Ellis Park. Moreover, the round-trip to Potchefstroom the day before has reduced their enthusiasm for the backwoods so much that their scheduled three days in Kimberley next week were yesterday reduced to one.

England will now fly in and out of diamond country on Tuesday for their game with South Africa A, otherwise remaining in Pretoria until after the Test. Back at Ellis Park tomorrow, Will Carling has decided a recently dislocated thumb is no impediment to leading the side.

This does not seem the captain's most sensible course of action but his determination to prove his Test place is not in doubt evidently knows no bounds. Much as they would also have liked to play, Stuart Barnes (cut head) and the deserving Martin Bayfield (ankle) were not considered.

ENGLAND (v Transvaal, Johannesburg, tomorrow): P Hull (Bristol); 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: J Callard, M Catt (Bath), S Bates (Wasps), G Rowntree (Leicester), G Dawe, S Ojomoh (Bath).

(Photograph omitted)