Rugby Union: Tension on tour as Rowell and old guard head for a collision: England's two defeats at the start of their South African tour have set the clock running. Steve Bale reports from Durban

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AS A voyage of discovery, England's to South Africa is already sailing perilously close to the rocks and the discoveries are being made as much about the England team as by them. Geoff Cooke knew everything there was to know about his players; Jack Rowell still knows all too little.

As Rowell, Cooke's successor as manager, insistently pointed out yesterday, he has inherited a team 'at the 11th hour on the way to a World Cup' - and his every pronouncement in the days before he attained his elevated status has betrayed that these are not those he would have picked. Not all of them, anyway.

If this gives rise to a mutual suspicion, so be it. As far as Rowell is concerned, these guys have to prove themselves all over again, particularly now that both his teams have lost conclusively in South Africa. And it is fair to point out that, the leap from club to country being as chasm-wide for Rowell as it would be for any player, he has to prove himself to them as well.

This is where things have changed for good. With Cooke there was - or at least there appeared to be - a comfort zone for his players. They grew older together, in some cases they grew complacent together. Suddenly, with Rowell in charge, the former certainties of the Carlings and Moores have disappeared and it is profoundly unsettling for them.

Cooke, in that unassuming way of his, used to accentuate the positive. Rowell's style, as any of the players who were under his aegis during 17 phenomenally successful years at Bath will tell you, is the reverse. This England manager likes to test players with criticism, sometimes highly personal and frequently in front of their peers, to see from their reaction what calibre of man they are.

This is why the many Bath players on tour here have been waiting for the explosion. A second-string defeat in Bloemfontein may have been tolerable, just, but the abject manner of what followed in Durban was more than Rowell could take. 'He has been too chummy- chummy on this tour,' one of his Bath alumni quivered after Natal's win - over the full England Test side, no less - last Saturday.

This was like saying it had been too damn quiet. Another of the Bath contingent reckoned the explosion, when it came, would be 'horrendous'. But instead Rowell is still biding his time, though, for what it is worth, his meetings with the attendant press pack have lost some of their jocularity.

For the first week of the tour, Rowell turned these question-and- answer sessions into an exercise in witty repartee. What's wrong with Adebayo? 'His father's got too much money.' Did you talk with the referee after the game? 'He dashed off to catch the 6 o'clock flight and his mother received an England tie from me. I'd never met a referee who had parents before.'

Rowell's speech at the post- match buffet in Durban had his audience rocking, even though they can have understood scarcely a word. 'I've got a tie for Parky, the Natal president. We haven't got many with us so Parky, if you'd like to let me have it back later . . .'

This, emphatically, would not have been the Cooke style, but then the demure former manager was far more intense and seldom wore his heart on his sleeve. Rowell is no less serious, but the seriousness comes in shorter bursts because rugby has never been more than a hobby for him. Indeed, as big a reason as any for Cooke's peremptory departure was that he felt rugby, far from being a hobby, had taken over his life.

Partly in consequence, Cooke had become successful. His players wanted to play for him, or for themselves at any rate, and now Rowell is faced with an unenviable task to turn the same trick with players who are not necessarily yet disposed to play for him as they were for his predecessor. Hence the tour, particularly after two defeats in two games, is riddled with tension.

Rowell's reponse to the Natal defeat was, for the first time, to take the lead role in coaching Sunday's session for those who had not played the previous day. Those who trained then were understandably disgruntled that the differentiation between the first and second teams had been perpetuated by the firsts' being given the day off.

It was an aggressively led session which the squad expected to presage a verbal lashing at the team meeting before they went off to training at King's Park yesterday. Instead, Rowell let them down lightly and reverted to his usual watching brief when Dick Best, the coach, acerbically took the two-hour practice.

If this is a sort of phoney war, it will not last. 'Jack never has been, and has never desired to be, the most popular person in the world,' Stuart Barnes said yesterday. If anyone comes closest to appreciating Rowell's whims and foibles it is Barnes after his decade as Bath's outside-half.

Barnes famously fell out with Cooke during the old regime, but he has fallen out with Rowell, too, and it is only because he is precisely Rowell's type of man that Barnes has consistently bounced back. Others in this England party may be of a different, less amenable stamp - in which case they should not expect to make it through to the World Cup.

This far, in pre-tour as well as on-tour selection, Rowell has persisted in previous loyalties to which he may not necessarily subscribe. Soon - certainly as soon as the Test series here, and that begins on Saturday week - he will have to make his own, independent choices of both personnel or tactics.

Barnes, who is perceptive but not always popular with his fellow tourists, said: 'Jack is walking into somebody else's style with somebody else's personalities, and he's got to remould very quickly if we are to succeed in the southern hemisphere.

'There is more pressure and volatility in the rugby he wants to play - and it can fail. But for England to succeed at the ultimate level, in other words next year's World Cup, we have to be able to put ourselves under pressure. Geoff Cooke allowed players a 10 per cent shelter line. That's OK in the Five Nations but it was the bottom line why we lost the last World Cup.'

Rowell would not dream of saying so, but we can easily imagine he believes every word.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments