England. . . .21
ENGLAND are finally getting better - hooray - but so is the rugby they are striving to withstand. The Test series beginning this Saturday in Pretoria is looking ever more ominous, always assuming the South African team really will be the sum of their provincial parts as opposed to a disjointed assortment of parochial provincials.
This is England's reasonable hope, as is another that further solid improvement will somehow turn their fortunes around. Yet no matter how overriding the importance of Test victory, three defeats and a narrow win as they have gone through the warm-up fortnight have not inspired hope, let alone expectation.
There is no respite, not with South Africa A meeting the midweekers (ie, England A) tomorrow. Whoever accepted so unforgiving an itinerary - especially remembering that it relates to utterly unfamiliar territory - had little thought for the English players' welfare, and they have been told as much at every turn in South Africa. 'I inherited this tour,' Rowell growled, as if his predecessor, Geoff Cooke, or someone else had been in league with the devil, or anyway the South African Rugby Football Union.
On Saturday, England had the excuse that they were up against opposition of the highest calibre, but at the same time the pernicious message of Transvaal's captivating free-running attack and counter-attack was that England are in a different class. A lower class, since they do not even aspire to this sort of resplendent adventurism in their domestic rugby and so now have no means of adopting it when it is needed.
In fairness, they achieved more continuity at Ellis Park than in the previous three tour matches put together, most particularly in the too-late try by Rory Underwood which gave a brighter gloss to the score than probably they deserved.
Otherwise, it was the yeoman English virtues of persistence and pluck, unyielding defence coupled with a dogged refusal to allow the thin air of the high veld to reduce their resistance, which saw them to respectability. And having already landed one from 60 yards, Rob Andrew even had a remote chance to equalise with a penalty from 70 with the final kick.
Against a Transvaal side of, and playing with, such quality England's virtues were by no means negligible. But they were and are essentially predictable, and there is no suggestion that this England would ever be able to cut loose in the way Francois Pienaar's team so often did in a gloriously fluid second half. 'It was the most tiring game I've played in, ever,' Will Carling, England's captain, said and this categoric view was endorsed by all his senior players.
Perhaps he should not have been surprised. Transvaal are not only holders of the Currie Cup, South African rugby's premier championship, but also won three other trophies last season including the Super Ten tournament in which they beat Auckland, no less, in the final. The contrast of this season's dismaying Super Ten visit to the Antipodes, where they lost quite badly to Queensland and North Harbour, turned out to be highly therapeutic.
'After that, we decided we were going to enjoy our rugby again,' Pienaar said, and the consequence was devastating for England. An early try by Hennie le Roux was the first indication and, though it was a long time in coming, the second by Jaco Louw was actually a modest return for the manner, effective as well as enjoyable, in which Transvaal had run at England from anywhere and everywhere.
It is impossible to imagine any English side daring such a thing, but at least Carling's team had their moments - which is more than could in the main be said for them against Free State, Natal and Western Transvaal. 'What people are missing out on is we have a team that finished the Five Nations on a high but that is only their second game since then,' Jack Rowell, the manager, explained.
As South Africa have not played together at all since last October, this presumably is a message of hope. There is, indeed, a patent feeling here that the Springboks will be individually stronger than Transvaal but cannot hope to match their provincial champions collectively. 'There is rhythm developing; the flow is going in the right direction,' Rowell suggested. It was scarcely a clarion call.
England had yet another beef about the referee, but at least it did not concern the line-out. They had legitimate cause for complaint when Theo van Rensburg failed to touch down behind his line and Carling dotted down the loose ball only for Ian Rogers to rule he had already blown for a drop-out. Later, Rogers candidly confessed to his mistake.
As the score was 11-11 at the time, eight minutes into the second half, the prospective implications were obvious. Instead England, having embarrassed Transvaal once when Rob Andrew tapped and ran for a try instead of kicking for goal, stoically got on with it and finished with the Underwood flourish. Stoicism did not suffice against Transvaal, however; neither will it against South Africa.
Transvaal: Tries H le Roux, Louw; Conversion Van Rensburg; Penalties Van Rensburg 4. England: Tries Andrew, R Underwood; Conversion Andrew; Penalties Andrew 3.
TRANSVAAL: T van Rensburg; J Louw, J Mulder (all Rand Afrikaans University), C Scholtz (Germiston), P Hendriks (Roodepoort); H le Roux (Rand Afrikaans University), J Roux (Wanderers); B Swart (Roodepoort), J Dalton, J le Roux (both Rand Afrikaans University), K Wiese (Pirates), H Strydom, I Macdonald (both Germiston), R Straeuli (Wanderers), F Pienaar (Rand Afrikaans University, capt). Replacement: I Hattingh (Roodepoort) for Swart, 78.
ENGLAND: 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 (both Harlequins), V Ubogu (Bath), M Johnson (Leicester), N Redman (Bath), T Rodber (Northampton), D Richards (Leicester), B Clarke (Bath). Replacement: S Bates (Wasps) for Morris, 51. Temporary substitute: Bates for Morris, 17-22.
Referee: I Rogers (Durban).
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