RUGBY UNION: Mallett expects Test of mettle

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The Independent Online
AS RECENTLY as last July, the Springboks were worried about England only to the extent of wondering how long an uncompetitive canter in Cape Town might keep them from lunch. Suddenly, the boot is on the other ribcage, so to speak; not only because the English will field something resembling a Test-quality side at Twickenham this weekend, but because this latest one-off international represents the most important South African rugby occasion since two blind-side flankers, Francois Pienaar and a promising debutant by the name of Mandela, made sweet World Cup music together in 1995.

The Boks are on the verge of sporting immortality, which is not a place you get to visit more than once in a lifetime. Victory over England will give them a record 18th straight win at Test level, a run stretching back to late August of last year and a 62-31 shellacking of Australia in Pretoria. Since then, they have beaten every major rugby nation bar two both home and away and of the exceptions, France have been subdued in both Lyons and Paris while the Scots have shipped more than a century of points in the space of two hidings in Edinburgh.

"I'm very proud of the things we've achieved as a team," said Nick Mallett, not unreasonably, on arrival in London yesterday. "But while we're aware that this is a special game - personally, I find it hard to imagine any side putting together this many Test victories ever again - we will keep our focus by reminding ourselves that the way to break records is to concentrate on short-term goals rather than the end product. The only goal we've set ourselves on this tour is to get through unbeaten, not just on Test days but in midweek as well. Quite honestly, a Grand Slam of the home unions is quite enough to be thinking about."

Southern hemisphere rugby folk have not made a recent habit of dignifying the game in the British Isles with public outpourings of respect, but the fact that the Boks have been made to sweat buckets for their successes over the past three weeks drew some words of praise from the visiting coach.

"There has been an obvious improvement in coaching standards in both Wales and Ireland and a similar improvement in terms of personnel in Scotland," pronounced Mallett. "If England, without doubt the strongest of the home unions, have progressed to the same degree, it will be a hell of a hard game on Saturday."

Indeed it will, especially if Will Greenwood regains full fitness in time to take his appointed place in midfield and David Rees finally gets the opportunity to add some bustling sparkle to the right wing. "Greenwood is a very, very good player," agreed Mallett, who would no doubt prefer the Leicester centre not to rush his recovery from the minor groin strain that ruled him out of England's one-point defeat by Australia. "Pair him with Jeremy Guscott and you have a combination capable of causing real trouble in attack."

South Africa have one fitness quandary of their own and it surrounds James Dalton, the Transvaal hooker.

Dalton twanged a hamstring during some voluntary extra labour on a gymnasium treadmill in Ireland last week and lasted only 10 minutes of Saturday's proceedings at Lansdowne Road. "We'll make a decision on Wednesday," said Mallett, clearly exasperated that an experienced professional player should hit the running machine without bothering with a proper warm-up.

If the coach is forced to call up Naka Drotske from the bench, the Boks will have to negotiate the final hurdle of a marathon 14 and a half month course without two-thirds of the front row that pulverised England at Twickenham this time last year (Os du Randt, comfortably the best loose- head prop in the game, has been told to rest up for six months while his knee ligaments recover from the effects of propelling a 20-stone frame around at quite ridiculous speeds). Such an eventuality will not deflect them from their purpose.

"We've come a long way and, at times, we've done it through being bloody- minded rather than brilliant," Mallett said. "We've won games in which we haven't played well, especially on this trip, and that has hardened our resolve. If we can just win this one, we'll be happy to let history judge us."