Rugby Union: England tackle Boks head on

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The Independent Online
THE SPRINGBOKS attempt a world record 18th successive Test victory tomorrow having conceded precisely that number of tries in the 15 months since the God-fearing Carel du Plessis relinquished coaching control to the apparently God-like Nick Mallett. Their defensive expertise is nothing short of astonishing - sometimes, you wonder whether there might be 18 South Africans on the pitch - and according to Lawrence Dallaglio, the England captain charged with restoring credibility to the wider European game as well as giving Clive Woodward the big-league breakthrough he craves, the Twickenham tackle count will be every bit as important as the try count.

"The Boks have certainly upped their defence since the Lions beat them and that improvement was the foundation stone of their recent Tri-Nations victory," said the Wasps flanker yesterday. "From a low base, they have developed new levels of confidence, to the point that there seems an inevitability about their winning close games. If they beat us, I'm quite sure they will extend their record through the 20-Test mark. But that's a big 'if'. The record is a marvellous motivating factor for them, but we, too, are motivated."

Mallett, unbeaten in 16 Tests, saw his side concede three tries in each of the first two matches of his tenure. Since then, they have only twice shipped more than one: to Australia in Perth in July and to New Zealand in Durban a month later. Indeed, they can legitimately claim that their 17-match sequence has more to commend it than the undefeated run compiled by Brian Lochore's great All Black side of the 1960s. The New Zealanders played 11 of their matches on home soil while the Boks have secured 10 of their victories on the road. Dallaglio agreed that the tourists' achievement in equalling the All Black landmark was "fantastic", but was even more positive about his own side's chances of success. "We should have beaten the Wallabies; indeed, had we played for the full 80 minutes, we would have," he said.

However, Dallaglio's Lions experience must tell him that England cannot hope to prevail unless they kick their goals as well as make their tackles. While the Boks went into last year's series without a specialist kicker and paid for their folly, the Lions flatly refused to walk on to the Test paddock without Neil Jenkins in their armoury. Sadly, England do not possess a Jenkins, or anyone remotely like him. What they do possess is Matt Dawson and it remains to be seen whether the Northampton scrum-half passes as a high-pressure marksman.

The man himself was gloriously unperturbed yesterday by all the fuss surrounding his new and unexpected role. "I didn't realise until I opened the morning papers how massive a story it had become," he smiled, his tongue heading rapidly towards his cheek. "I really don't have a problem with it; in fact, I'm so relaxed about goal-kicking that if we had been given another kick at goal against the Wallabies last week, I would have told Mike Catt (whose fluffed conversion 10 minutes from time effectively cost England the game) that I was available if he felt he didn't want to take it.

"I don't see it as a burden. I shouldered the responsibility of captain, scrum-half and kicker at Test level back in the summer and I'm happy that anything around the 45-metre mark is within my range. What this switch has done is relieve some of the burden off Mike. He's been brought back in at stand-off and he can now concentrate solely on running the ball, which is what everyone seems to want from our No 10s."

For all that, Dawson is no more than an apprentice at this level and the Boks, pragmatic customers that they are, will use his inexperience as an excuse to infringe far more readily than might otherwise have been the case.

A couple of early misses will leave England uncomfortably wedged between a rock and a hard place, for it will be very difficult for them to go back to Catt following the events of the last few days. Andy Robinson, who coaches Catt at Bath, believes Woodward has got it wrong. "Mike has kicked well for us and I think the brave decision would have been to stick with him as kicker against the Boks," he said. "He's been criticised for missing one conversion, but England should not be blaming him for last weekend's defeat. They should be looking inwards at their own performance."