Rugby Union: England step into the unknown: Ryan's midweekers are expecting a tough opening to South African tour against Orange Free State

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SO MUCH has been made of the style Jack Rowell is purportedly going to bring to the England team it could be easily overlooked that the only thing that matters for the new manager's second string against Orange Free State this afternoon is a victory - any victory, achieved in any style.

On the one hand, this would encourage the midweekers that they had a purpose in being here beyond being developed for some nebulous long-term future. On the other, when this unforgiving tour is completed England might well be glad to have something on the positive side of the balance sheet. If they win the Tests, no one will give a fig about their other results, but if they lose the series and the midweek side struggles disappointment will very likely turn into despondency.

With the first match upon them, England are stepping into the unknown. Not only do they know next to nothing about today's opposition, they are also utterly unfamiliar with the thin air and rock-hard turf at Springbok Park, the cricket ground which is having to be used because Free State Stadium is being refurbished for next year's World Cup.

Rowell is asking a lot of his non-Test team when he pitches so many with so little experience into these hostile surroundings. This England team have no fewer than eight uncapped players and of the grand total of 35 caps possessed by the other seven, Stuart Barnes and Martin Bayfield have 24 between them.

Free State may be some way below the likes of Natal and Transvaal, but against such callowness they can be excused for fancying their chances. 'From what I've heard, they are a big, physical side up front and they like to move the ball around,' Dean Ryan, today's England captain, said.

Which is true as far as it goes, but neglects to mention that they are young, hungry and, if only they can keep their players, have the potential to develop into an exceptional provincial side. 'Physical', by the way, is a euphemism for rough.

The difficulty for them is that the Free State union is not the richest and South African rugby has become so shamelessly professionalised that more and more players give every appearance of following the rand. Andre Joubert, Pieter Muller and Henry Honiball make the point; they are all ex-Free Staters who will face England for Natal on Saturday.

Barnes had shaken off the flu sufficiently to train in Durban yesterday before the tour party made the journey here last night. He will take his place at outside-half today provided there is no adverse overnight reaction, though he will find it hard just to breathe freely, let alone run around, at 3,000ft altitude.

In other words, Barnes would probably be well advised to ensure that he does have an overnight reaction in the hope that, breathing easily, he will then get a game among the first choice in Durban. Or am I being unduly cynical?

ORANGE FREE STATE: A Pawson; C Badenhorst, B Venter, E Lubbe, D van Rensburg; F Smith, H Martens; J-H le Roux, N Drotske (capt), D Heymans, R Opperman, B Els, A Venter, J von Solms, A Cloete.

ENGLAND: P Hull (Bristol); D Hopley (Wasps), S Potter (Leicester), M Catt, A Adebayo; S Barnes (Bath), S Bates (Wasps); G Rowntree (Leicester), G Dawe, J Mallett (Bath), M Poole (Leicester), M Bayfield (Northampton), L Dallaglio, D Ryan (Wasps, capt), S Ojomoh (Bath).

Referee: P Lombard (Durban).