Rugby Union: Loose words and no support: Chris Rea in South Africa says England have suffered at their own hand

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The Independent Online
LET NO one doubt that the pen is mightier than the sword. The engagement between General Buller's Lancashire regiments and the Boers at Spion Kop was a little local difficulty compared to the havoc wrought by Stuart Barnes's newspaper article on that most sensitive of topics, the Afrikaner mentality.

There have been bulletins in the Orange Free State, transcriptions in the Transvaal but, as yet, not a toot from Twickenham. To make matters worse, Barnes's journalistic credibility was not enhanced by the fact that the article was based on received information.

He was not present at the function in Bloemfontein he so savagely criticised where the hosts allegedly abused the England players in Afrikaans. Barnes has subsequently written to the President of the Orange Free State pointing out that the opinions expressed were personal and in no way represented the views of the touring party.

Nevertheless, it is beyond belief that the Rugby Football Union, which becomes apoplectic at the very mention of players telling a few jokes and making a bob or two from speaking at a club dinner, does not turn a hair when it comes to the written expression of views - and highly controversial ones at that - for which payment has been received. Had the same words been penned by a cricketer in the privileged position of representing his country on tour, he would probably have been on the next plane home. But there has been not a word from the RFU, whose president, Ian Beer, an unyielding crusader in the battle against professionalism and a self-styled protector of the game's image, has now joined the tour.

There were some lame attempts to link Barnes's head injury in Potchefstroom last Wednesday to a vengeful conspiracy by the opposition, but that, like the report of Will Carling's demise as captain, was nonsense. Had Western Transvaal wanted to flatten Barnes, they could have done so on at least a dozen occasions earlier in the game, so slow was the service he received from the base of England's scrummage. The refereeing in that match was deplorable, quite unacceptable at this level of competition, but there has not been a touring team in history that has had a good word to say about local referees. Poor refereeing is a fact of life when on the road and one which every side has to come to terms with.

England's problems lie much deeper than that. The sins of omission perpetrated by the Lions in 1980 have been repeated by England. The Lions arrived with only one specialist open-side in the party, the Welshman Stuart Lane, whose tour lasted approximate1y 30 seconds. When he was injured, the Lions had no one to compete with the undisputed player of the series, the Western Province flanker Rob Louw. He was given the freedom of every field on which he played against the tourists. He was the difference between the two sides and the difference between victory and defeat in the series.

On this tour England have come to play on the hard, fast South African grounds with five No 8s - Richards, Ryan, Rodber, Clarke and Ojomoh - and one flanker, Lawrence Dallaglio, whose experience, even at club level, has been restricted mainly to second-team rugby.

Whatever the truth of the management's criticisms of the refereeing standards, they remain excuses for England's impoverished performances, not reasons. When Steve Ojomoh exploded off the back of the scrummageat Bloemfontein and again at Potchefstroom after two quick heels, he had no support. When England's midfield run up blind alleys, which they have done so often, there has been no support. And on those rare occasions when the ball has reached that most endangered of species, the England winger, there has also been no support. It is mighty difficult to keep the ball alive when there is no one there to recycle it, and the longer the ball is trapped in the rucks and mauls, the more likely it is that referees will find cause to penalise the tourists.

Jack Rowell's avowed intentions on this tour have been to imitate and, if possible, to improve upon England's game against Wales in March. On that occasion the support players got quickly enough to the breakdown to maintain the flow. So far, even going forward, the tourists have come a poor second in the loose.

Ben Clarke's form is causing concern. Clarke struck a bet with a member of the press by which he would receive a case of wine for every match he survived without dropping a pass, and forfeit a bottle for every pass that he spilled. It is proving as costly on the player's pocket as it is on the scribe's health. Clarke, and a few others, look worn out.

Fatigue at the end of a demanding season was one of the reasons why England picked the soft option of Durban for their period of acclimatisation rather than the more spartan surroundings of the Transvaal, although in the same situation one suspects that the All Blacks would have opted for the latter. But there is character in this tour party. There are too many good and experienced players for them to be rattled by the events of the past fortnight, and at the end of a week when the headlines have been hijacked by spurious words, the time has come for the purity of action.