Rugby Union: Tourists offer cultural contrast: Steve Bale assesses the merits of the Springboks and the Wallabies on the eve of their autumn tours

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HOWEVER odious comparisons may be, they are about to be sharply made between the Springboks and Wallabies when they coincide on tours which take in four of the Five Nations. The South Africans kick off in Bordeaux tomorrow; the Australians leave Sydney for Ireland next Friday.

The comparison will have little to do with the playing of the game: the rugby world has already been given a rather direct example of that when Australia beat South Africa 26-3 in Cape Town six weeks ago. We know the Springboks have catching-up to do after their years of isolation and we can assume, rugby having the status it does in the Republic, that they will quickly do so.

In this respect perhaps the tour comes too soon. And it probably comes too soon, too, for any other comparisons to be particularly flattering. The Wallabies are not only World Cup holders, they ooze class off the field as well as on it. They are popular tourists, distinguished ambassadors and masters of PR who are not content simply to let their rugby do their talking.

This is where the Springboks have much to learn - which is not in any sense a political point, since precisely the same could be said of the All Blacks. The real point is that, as they embark on their European adventure, Naas Botha's team have a responsibility to represent the emergent South Africa, and, if this seems a mixing of politics and sport, that is their hard luck.

For just as South Africa has been the cross rugby has had to bear, so now the cross South African rugby has to bear is faithfully to implement a new, multi-racial dispensation. In such circumstances will the 'Boks, as the Wallabies have so conspicuously done, present the world with a smiling face?

We wait with baited breath, but the reasons - concerning nationhood and the flag - for the withdrawal of Uli Schmidt from the tour do not bode well, especially as the hooker, a doctor, had been regarded as one of the more enlightened South Africans.

As for the rugby in France and England, it will probably be more arduous than anything the Wallabies will face when they pass through Ireland and Wales. 'After playing Australia and the All Blacks, they know they are a long way behind southern-hemisphere sides. Now they will see how they come up to European standards,' Pierre Berbizier, the coach of France, said.

French provincial selections, as the New Zealanders who toured there two years ago would confirm, are weighted to give touring teams as rough a ride as possible - and you may interpret 'rough' how you like. Like French rugby itself, a floodlit game at a place like Pau, Marseille and Beziers is not for the squeamish.

And as Springboks, hard men to a man, are anything but squeamish, the potential for conflagration is obvious. By the time South Africa reach the first Test in Lyon on 17 October, they will have been battered, bruised and endlessly provoked. But if they respond as the All Blacks did in the Tests which followed provincial defeats in 1990, they will move on to England in triumph.

If they do, they will have made an immense advance since they lost to New Zealand and, more especially, were trounced by Australia. The practical experience of that game betrayed South African rugby's archaic priority: mammoth forwards for whom muscularity was more valuable than mobility. As David Sole, the retired Scotland captain, says in his autobiography, this is 10-15 years out of date.

South Africans were overwhelmed, or undermined depending on how you view it, by their own hubris when first the All Blacks and then the Wallabies beat the Springboks. Too many people took victory for granted when it was asking the scarcely possible that Botha's team step successfully back into the international arena against opponents of such quality.

'It's easy for people to run us down,' Botha said. 'But the fact is we played Australia after three training sessions and there isn't much you can plan in that time.' After all, most of the Wallabies had been together for years while the best opposition the boycotted 'Boks had managed since the NZ Cavaliers sneaked into South Africa in 1986 was a scratch invitation side three years ago.

The predilection for macho forwards capable of mauling but not chasing is one obvious product of isolation. If, on the other hand, you can combine the muscular with the mobile you have yourself a team. The effect on Australia of Nick Farr-Jones's retirement may be incalculable in terms of strategy, tactics and leadership, but the Wallaby forwards - muscular and mobile - who won the World Cup survive in better shape than ever, better even than when they beat England in the final.

That, believe it or not, was 11 months ago. 'Springboks - the real world champions' was the fatuous legend on South African banners at the World Cup, and South African people believed their own publicity. You can argue about whether, in the Springboks' absence, the Wallabies deserve that title but at least no one any longer believes the 'Boks worthy of it.

For that, and for the wonderful Wallabies who bring joy to the game, we should give thanks. But the Springboks, suspicious of a rugby world that (reluctantly) ostracised them, have still to earn our gratitude. Now that they are back - and we should be glad to have them - they have six short weeks in which to do so.


SOUTH AFRICA (for tour of France and England): Full-backs: H Reece-Edwards (Natal), T van Rensburg (Transvaal). Wings: P Hendriks, J Olivier (Transvaal), D Oosthuizen (Northern Transvaal), J Small (Transvaal). Centres: H Fuls (Transvaal), D Gerber, F Knoetze (Western Province), P Muller (Natal). Stand-offs: N Botha (Northern Transvaal, capt), H le Roux (Transvaal). Scrum-halves: R du Preez (Natal), G Wright (Transvaal). Props: K Andrews (Western Province), W Hills (Northern Transvaal), H Rodgers (Transvaal), J Styger (Orange Free State). Hookers: H Roberts (Transvaal), A Truscott (Northern Transvaal). Locks: S Atherton (Natal), A Geldenhuys (Eastern Province), D Hattingh, A Malan (Northern Transvaal). Flankers: W Bartmann (Natal), I McDonald (Transvaal), P Pretorius (Northern Transvaal), B Roussouw (Western Transvaal). No 8s: A Richter (Northern Transvaal), T Strauss (Western Province).

AUSTRALIA (for tour of Ireland and Wales): Full-backs: T Kelaher, M Roebuck (New South Wales). Wings: D Campese (NSW), P Carozza (Queensland), D Junee (NSW), D Smith (Queensland). Centres: A Herbert, T Horan, J Little (Queensland), R Tombs (NSW). Stand-offs: P Kahl, M Lynagh (Queensland, capt). Scrum-halves: A Ekert (NSW), P Slattery (Queensland). Props: A Daly (NSW), C Lillicrap, D Crowley (Queensland), E McKenzie (NSW). Hookers: P Kearns (NSW), D Nucifora (Queensland). Locks: J Eales, R McCall, G Morgan (Queensland), W Waugh (NSW). Flankers: M Brial (NSW), T Coker (Queensland), V Ofahengaue (NSW), D Wilson (Queensland). No 8s: T Gavin (NSW), S Scott-Young (Queensland).

(Photograph omitted)