Rugby Union: England's ills exposed: Chris Rea reflects on a rugby union tour that brought home faults in approach and ability

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S defeat by the Springboks at Newlands last weekend was as comprehensive as any in England's recent past. It brought the tour to a close with a record of a shared Test series and five defeats in eight matches. England left for South Africa with four objectives: to win both Tests; to compete strongly in each game; to develop the skills and experience of the individual; and to gain overall experience which would enhance their chances of winning the World Cup next year. On the face of it, few, if any, of these objectives were met.

There is no doubt that the midweek debacle against Eastern Province had a melancholy influence on the preparations for the final match of the tour. Gone was the seething desire to win, which England had taken on to the field at Loftus Versfeld. A couple of days' rest after that famous victory, over-celebration of a job only half-done, the sourness of Port Elizabeth - where Tim Rodber was sent off - and its bitter after-taste, and the inevitable distractions of the homeward journey, all contributed to England's poor performance at Newlands.

On the positive side, England will argue that these are lessons that they have learnt from the tour. By the completeness of their victory in the first Test, England proved to themselves that they can win in South Africa, even if they still require a rallying point and a kick up the rump to do it. What that victory cannot, and must not, hide is the quality in quantity of the South Africans.

Quite apart from those in and on the fringe of the national squad, the depth of talent down to under-21 level to the schools appears limitless. The skills, so joyously liberated, of the provincial under-21 sides playing in the curtain-raisers, had to be seen to be believed. In the Transvaal squad alone are three full-backs, Theo van Rensburg, Gavin Johnson and Chris Dirks, of international calibre.

If by sharing the series England failed in their first objective, they came closer to achieving their second, which was to compete strongly to win each game. A case of stating the obvious, perhaps, but it would have been pointless to set the unrealistic target of winning every game, especially if, as happened, England were to lose the opening match. At no stage did the side run up the white flag as the Lions' midweek XV had done in New Zealand the previous summer.

Graham Rowntree, John Mallett and, in his two matches, Simon Shaw gained visibly in strength and confidence, and although they started from very different points, so ultimately did Lawrence Dallaglio and Adedayo Adebayo, whose commitment and resolve had been questioned by Jack Rowell in the early part of the tour.

Their advance in part fulfils the fourth objective, which also includes peripheral strategies for fitness, medical care, hotel accommodation and playing at altitude. Experience of the conditions will be invaluable to England when they reconvene here next year, as will the referees' interpretations of the law, bizarre as some of them were.

It is now clear that the line- outs have become like scrums and that giving the opposition the throw-in is tantamount to surrending possession. It is of critical importance therefore that England find a role for Martin Bayfield as a middle jumper and not at No 2, where he operated for much of this tour. They must also solve the problem of where to play Ben Clarke. He is not the ideal No 7, but Rodber's displays would surely block any switch to the blind side, where Clarke was so effective for the Lions last summer.

The most crushingly deflating lesson England have learnt is that while their individual skills may earn them safe passage through the Five Nations' Championship, they will not withstand a World Cup.

England, therefore, came up well short of reaching their third objective. There is no more wholehearted player in the country than Dewi Morris. There is also no more assiduous trainer. But what is the point spending hour after hour practising passing and kicking with what is a defective technique?

Nick Faldo, whose technique, which appeared flawless to the untutored eye, and was enough to make him a millionaire, nevertheless cost him golf's major prizes. His answer was to dismantle and rebuild his swing under the guidance of David Leadbetter. Who is there in rugby to offer similar advice?

In the week before England played Natal, their passing in unopposed practice was laboured and sloppy. In the claustrophobic intensity of the match it broke down altogether. A couple of kicks over-hit into the box, a couple of misthrows to the line-out as happened in the second Test, can alter the course of a game at this level. Rowell recognised this and began to introduce 10-minute drills in order to raise the players' awareness of their own shortcomings. But the single- minded and necessarily repetitious pursuit of excellence is a rare phenomenon in British rugby.

As with the alcoholic, it is not until an illness is recognised that steps can be taken to cure it. And the responsibility for finding that cure lies not with one man, but all those concerned with the advancement of England as a force in world rugby.

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