Rugby Union: South Africa's first-time travellers: Steve Bale reports from Paris on how rugby union tourists are coping as innocents abroad

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The Independent Online
OUT of isolation after all these years - and then, in France, straight back into isolation of another sort brought about by the language barrier and capricious hosts. For the Springboks, touring is not necessarily all it is cracked up to be and it is definitely not all glamour.

Unused as most of them are to the delights or otherwise of international travel, let alone international rugby, their journey through France has been a learning process, about themselves as much as their ability, that the leading players of other countries went through years ago. At times it has been desperately hard.

'We have a lot of lost time to make up, a lot of experience to gain in a short space of time,' James Small, the 23-year-old wing who will win his fourth cap in tomorrow's second Test at Parc des Princes, said. Small being the archetype of the new Springbok generation, his new-found perception of tours and touring is especially instructive. In a sense, he speaks for all.

'I've never gone anywhere outside South Africa before, not even on holiday, so I didn't know what to expect coming away. You worry about what people are thinking at home. You're isolated. You're left alone in the big world. Initially it was difficult to come to terms with, but we've adapted to the conditions, the surroundings, the pressure. It's becoming easier.'

And will become easier still when the tourists move on to England on Sunday week. Well received though they have been, the Springboks have been frustrated by the standard and desolate suburban location of most of their hotels, their linguistic difficulties exacerbated by the French federation's bizarre allocation of a non-English speaker as liaison officer.

It would have been bad enough for the All Blacks or the Wallabies - and they are well versed in touring. Afrikaans may be the first language of the vast majority of these Springboks but it would surely have been kinder to have stepped out into the anglophone world, even at the risk of giving credence to the Anglo-Saxon conspiracy theory the French like to propound.

Indeed you get the impression that most of the Springboks would like nothing better than to end the French leg of the tour after tomorrow's Test instead of having another week and another two matches. The other day one of them even uttered the heresy that he could not wait to tuck into a meat pie.

'England is going to be wholly different,' Small said, though it might not after all be wholly better. The South Africans have been shielded by their lack of French from the considerable criticism of the media here. Not so in England. 'We are dealing with a country where we don't speak the language, and there are many things that are different,' Small added. 'But in England there will be other things to overcome, like the weather.'

In fact the weather in France since their arrival has generally been awful but then Small is used to the kinder winter climate of Johannesburg so we know what he means. 'I'm sure the guys will be more relaxed in England, simply through being able to talk to people.

'And we won't be as much in awe of the situation as we were when we arrived in France. We were in awe of the environment, of the players, of the grounds, of the weather. That was because it was a strange place and a strange experience. At first, because we stood in awe of the French we waited for them to come to us. Now it's the other way round and they are having to react to us.'

This has been precisely reflected in the South Africans' tour record: from the misery of their defeat in the opening match in Bordeaux through unconvincing wins in Pau and Toulouse to the first-Test victory in Lyons and the big midweek wins in Marseilles and Beziers either side of the Test.

At the beginning, such was the naivety of the touring newcomers that they needed to become as familiar with not playing as with playing. 'Personally I was on edge,' Small said. 'It was a funny thing because you come away thinking you have 13 matches to play in seven weeks and you're going to play in all of them.

'But of course it doesn't work out like that. Going away on tour and experiencing not being in the side for certain games was very strange. Your body isn't used to it and you don't know how to work with it. To begin with, it did get to us a bit. Now we are used to it.'

Remembering how his South African predecessors missed out during the apartheid years, Small can consider himself fortunate that his international career has been merely truncated. Though born in Cape Town, he has represented Transvaal since 1988, and last Saturday he scored his first Test try.

'I always felt it unjust that there were certain things that were out of my control that stopped me showing the sporting talent that God had given me,' he said. 'I have a lot still to learn but I'm young enough to profit from our return.

'You look at the great players who never had the chance to make the most of themselves and you get an idea of what it means to someone like me that we are back. In France I haven't really done what I love - run with the ball and do exciting things - but it's already been a hell of an experience.' And, one might add, a hell of an education.

(Photograph omitted)