Rugby Union: England's telling tour of enlightenment: Rowell's squad to discover a changed South Africa on and off the playing field. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
SO MANY legitimate doubts have been expressed about whether the England rugby players would actually make it to South Africa that, now that they really are on their way, it seems a thing almost of wonder.

For this they must thank the South African people for making their election a triumph rather than the bloodbath which had given such pause for thought. England's 30 players fly out of Heathrow tonight and arrive tomorrow in a country en fete.

Rugby may be the Afrikaner's religion but it is minuscule in the scale of human affairs compared with the events of the past fortnight in the new, apparently joyous Republic of South Africa. At the same time, it is reasonable to assume that England, by their welcome presence, will add just a little to the joy.

The irony of this is that it was the Rugby Football Union after all others who stuck by South African rugby. England's tour of 1984 was the last to be officially made during the boycott years, and the team retreated rather than simply returned after being laid waste by a Springbok side who had no need of the prolific points-scoring of Naas Botha.

The golden boy was briefly sojourning in American football at the time but after his convenient reinstatement in rugby union he survived long enough to oversee South Africa's return to the fold in 1992. It has not gone as planned by those who claimed the Springboks to be the true world champions at the 1991 World Cup.

Since then the Springboks' record gives them plenty to be modest about: four wins and a draw from 12 Tests. This indicates that England will do rather better this time, even if South African rugby is steadily closing the gap in skill, fitness and attitude that opened during a protracted, emasculating isolation. After two rehabilitatory years, it will be fascinating to see how far they have now travelled.

The Springboks have lost at home to New Zealand, Australia and France, and now come England - meaning they will have reintroduced Test rugby to their impassioned home public against the four strongest teams in the world. It has been a recipe for defeat as well as a crash-course in the modern game.

Tomorrow, England move directly from Johannesburg to Durban for five days at sea level before hitting the heights by playing Orange Free State in their opening match in Bloemfontein. The itinerary has been carefully arranged so as to minimise the effect of altitude but also maximise the experience of entirely unfamiliar South African conditions.

It is hard to imagine a tour to this great rugby country being anything other than an end in itself but the fact is that hanging heavily over the whole thing is next year's World Cup. So Jack Rowell, the new manager, can honestly say: 'This South African trip is a means to an end. It will give us important experience against South Africa, on hard grounds, at altitude.' Though not, one would suggest, necessarily in that order.

For Rowell's England, there could be no better or more productive time to be in South Africa. 'This tour is a unique opportunity to see this country at a very exciting time,' Rowell said, and as he has been a regular visitor on business he should know. The very fact that in post-apartheid South Africa rugby tours are no longer exercises in subterfuge and excuse-making with no positive end result is in itself a cause for celebration.

Even if all this is drooling with a wider significance than the passing and kicking of an oval ball, the England management will be quite content to concentrate on the rugby and getting more from a team whose habit of under-achievement cost them last season's Five Nations' Championship.

It can be done. Geoff Cooke, the manager Rowell has just succeeded, claimed in his final annual report to the RFU: 'The current squad has the potential to be the best ever.' This is lofty ambition, given the manifold successes of the Cooke era.

It is, too, the first time since 1987 that an England tour has not been a Cooke tour, and a decent period of assimilation under the new regime should be allowed for. In any case, England hardly set the outback alight in the southern hemisphere during Cooke's tenure, so it is asking a lot for them to do so to the veld as soon as Rowell's has begun.

At the same time, there is uncertainty in South African rugby about the capability of their team, who will be very different from the motley collection led by Botha in France and England 18 months ago. Francois Pienaar, now the captain, is an unmissable flaxen-haired flanker of the highest quality, but the Springboks are short of a line- out, especially at the tail, and their coach, Ian McIntosh, recognises that as England are strong all the way along this is where the series may be lost.

On the other hand, Springbok role-reversal is such that if a suspect pack can win enough ball the backs will be dangerous on the wide outside. The problem for them then is that Springbok tight forwards are still following, instead of being up with, the modern trend of ultra-mobile ball-players and the likes of Redman, Johnson and Ubogu could give England a decisive advantage.

The party will gain their first first-hand experience of South African rugby when they watch Saturday's Super Ten final between Natal and Queensland at King's Park, the Durban Test ground. The domestic season has only just concluded, so by the time they reach the end of the road at Cape Town, where the second Test will be played on 11 June, they will be ready less for next year's World Cup than for a long, long rest.

Ireland leave today on their first full tour to Australia since 1979, with little prospect of matching their achievements of 15 years ago. Then they won seven of the eight matches, beating the Australians in both Tests. The Irish squad, who are captained by the scrum-half, Michael Bradley, will hope to win half their eight matches, but will be hard pressed to triumph against New South Wales, Queensland and in the Tests in Brisbane and Sydney.

Phil Davies, the lock who badly bruised his shoulder during last Saturday's Schweppes Cup final, last night declared himself fit for Wales's World Cup qualifiers in Portugal and Spain next week.

----------------------------------------------------------------- THE SQUAD ----------------------------------------------------------------- FULL-BACKS Age Caps Paul Hull (Bristol) . . . . . .25 . . . . . . . .0 David Pears (Harlequins) . . . 26. . . . . . . . 4 WINGS Adedayo Adebayo (Bath) . . . . 23. . . . . . . . 0 Damian Hopley (Wasps) . . . . .24 . . . . . . . .0 Rory Underwood (Leicester) . . 30. . . . . . . .65 Tony Underwood (Leicester) . . 25. . . . . . . . 8 CENTRES Mike Catt (Bath) . . . . . . . 22. . . . . . . . 0 Will Carling (Harlequins, capt) . . . . . . . . . . . . .28 . . . . . . . 47 Philip de Glanville (Bath) . . 25. . . . . . . . 7 Stuart Potter (Leicester) . . .26 . . . . . . . .0 OUTSIDE-HALVES Rob Andrew (Wasps) . . . . . . 31. . . . . . . .57 Stuart Barnes (Bath) . . . . . 31. . . . . . . .10 SCRUM-HALVES Steve Bates (Wasps) . . . . . .31 . . . . . . . .1 Dewi Morris (Orrell) . . . . . 29. . . . . . . .17 PROPS Jason Leonard (Harlequins) . . 25. . . . . . . .30 John Mallett (Bath) . . . . . .23. . . . . . . . 0 Graham Rowntree (Leicester) . .23 . . . . . . . .0 Victor Ubogu (Bath) . . . . . .29 . . . . . . . .7 HOOKERS Graham Dawe (Bath) . . . . . . 34. . . . . . . . 4 Brian Moore (Harlequins) . . . 32. . . . . . . .50 LOCKS Martin Bayfield (Northampton) .27 . . . . . . . 14 Martin Johnson (Leicester) . . 24. . . . . . . . 6 Matthew Poole (Leicester) . . .25 . . . . . . . .0 Nigel Redman (Bath) . . . . . .29 . . . . . . . 16 BACK ROW Ben Clarke (Bath) . . . . . . .26 . . . . . . . .9 Lawrence Dallaglio (Wasps) . . 21. . . . . . . . 0 Dean Ryan (Wasps) . . . . . . .27 . . . . . . . .3 Steve Ojomoh (Bath) . . . . . .23 . . . . . . . .2 Dean Richards (Leicester) . . .30 . . . . . . . 36 Tim Rodber (Northampton) . . . 24. . . . . . . . 6 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Map omitted)

Irish squad and itinerary, Sporting Digest, page 35

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