Rugby Union: England need to shake off their sterility: South Africans promise an awkward reception for Carling's tourists. Steve Bale reports from Pretoria

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IT SHOWS how poorly England have done in South Africa that they have to rest their case for this afternoon's first Test at Loftus Versfeld on what happened in the diametrically different circumstances of the European season, on reputation rather than any recent evidence.

The evidence of their own eyes persuades most South Africans to take it for granted that the Springboks will win handsomely. England's often sterile, leaden-footed rugby is totally inappropriate to conditions here and their opponents have proved it by winning four of the five pre-Test matches.

'Conditions at home slow you down; conditions here speed you up,' Jack Rowell, the England manager, said after one of the defeats, and if his team make the mistake of trying to throttle the life out of the game today, they will be doomed.

English-style rugby may be enough to beat France and Wales, and even New Zealand at Twickenham on a bad day, but without expansion and variation it is guaranteed to fail against the Springboks in South Africa and it will certainly not win the World Cup when England return next year.

Rowell knows as much but time has not been on his side as England have lurched from match to match without being able to pause for thought. Will Carling, his captain, points the finger at the sadists who arranged the fixtures: 'We do seem to take on these tours that don't give us much chance to get any rhythm and confidence.'

'What we've been doing on this tour is change the game bit by bit, in line with what I said before we set off: that we wanted to use the backs more,' Rowell said, and to a degree this has occurred. The performances against Transvaal and South Africa A during the past week were considerable improvements on what had gone before.

Yet there remains an inhibition about when and where to open up. The England players have got it into their heads that good field position is the absolute prerequisite of attacking rugby, holding to that view even after Transvaal had spectacularly demonstrated the possibilities of long-range rugby.

If England are lucky, South Africa, unfamiliar in each other's company, will struggle to find the fluidity of their provincial champions. And if England are luckier still, the Springboks will take the advice of their former captain, Naas Botha, and limit their running rugby to England's half.

'The key to victory is to minimise mistakes and not to run at all costs,' Botha said. This is typical caution from one of the most incessant kickers of rugby history, though Botha gleefully points out that both of England's outside- halves, Rob Andrew and Stuart Barnes, kick more than he ever did.

This is neither what Rowell wants nor in England's best interests but the players have played together so often and are so mutually comfortable that the habit will undeniably be hard to kick. England today have 10 players from the side who beat Botha's Springboks in 1992; South Africa have only three.

The turnover - seven changes even from their last Test, in Argentina - continues and, however gifted they may be, that makes the Springboks a scratch side. Jannie Engelbrecht, their manager, recognises as much when he says: 'What we must do now is knit the individual brilliance into a team.'

This is easier said than done and the short history of South African Test rugby since their readmission to the world game is proof that in this country, with its fierce provincial loyalty, it is less easy than almost anywhere.

'It would be a fool who would underestimate England,' Francois Pienaar, the South African captain, said. 'The way they beat New Zealand was clinically planned and executed, the sign of a great side.' But it was also a long, long time ago.

Yesterday England indulged in a harder Friday practice than is their pre-Test custom. The chosen XV are all fit and well but there will have to be changes on the bench today if Steve Ojomoh does not recover from flu and Mike Catt's septic elbow shows no improvement.