Rugby Union: Understudies give England sluggish start: Differing fortunes in opening tour matches with little to celebrate in South Africa but Western Australia are overrun

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Orange Free State 22

England 11

THIS was almost the stuff of which England's worst nightmares might have been made, the fond imagining that a full set of second-teamers could handle one of South Africa's big six provinces ruthlessly shown to be a delusion at Springbok Park yesterday.

Had England not suddenly come through with Damian Hopley's late try it would have been hard to conceive a worse start to a tour, and although Jack Rowell found the 4-1 try margin 'beyond belief', it more than adequately reflected the balance of attacking opportunities.

It was therefore an inauspicious start for the new England manager. In 75F heat his team wilted decisively in the third quarter

after they had stubbornly completed an utterly forgettable first half with a one-point lead through Stuart Barnes's two penalties.

The try by Chris Badenhorst which came in between served as a warning and England went on to concede so much possession that it was scarcely surprising when Free State built their irresistible momentum. A try by Andre Venter and another by Badenhorst were the product of a soaring superiority, with the interception handed by Barnes to Jaco Coetzee a more prosaic, but final, embarrassment.

The crumbs of comfort - for instance in the performance of Steve Ojomoh and, more especially, the striking counter-attack which brought Hopley his try - were gobbled up by Dean Ryan, captain for the day. 'I don't think that was a nightmare,' he insisted. 'That was a very good side, we made some mistakes, and they

exploited it.'

On the other hand Dick Best, the coach, did admit: 'There is enormous scope for improvement in all areas.' But his subsequent remark that 'we are quite happy in many ways' will be seen to be credible only if the midweek side immediately put right on their next outing what went wrong here.

It was not only the errors, but also a habitual English failing: a complete inability to adapt to referees, especially in hostile overseas environments. Even after conceding eight free-kicks for closing the gap at the line-out, one questions whether the forwards will quickly get the message.

'The referee did not let us compete as we would back home,' Rowell suggested, in sadness rather than anger. 'What we should have done was adjust earlier.' Instead, eight potential pieces of possession were wantonly conceded. Small wonder that England failed to build either cohesion or continuity.

If the tour selectors had felt confident enough in their understudies to keep some back for Saturday's game against Natal, and consequently play a few of the Test side yesterday, in all probability the worst would not have come to the worst. Instead, Rowell felt he had no alternative.

'Four Saturdays do not give us the breathing space,' he said. 'It's not like a Lions tour where you have sufficient time to mix and match.' Accordingly, yesterday's team - the fitness of Mike Catt, who has a shoulder injury, and others permitting - will reappear in Potchefstroom next Wednesday. And then we will see if Springbok Park really was the springboard ritual English optimism would have us believe.

Orange Free State: Tries Badenhorst 2, A Venter, Coetzee; Conversion Van Rensburg. England: Try Hopley; Penalties Barnes 2.

ORANGE FREE STATE: A Pawson (Technikon); C Badenhorst (Old Students), B Venter (OFS University), E Lubbe (Old Greys), D van Rensburg (Old Students); F Smith, H Martens; A-H le Roux, N Drotske (OFS University, capt), D Heymans (Old Students), R Opperman (OFS University), B Els (Old Students), A Venter (Technikon), J von Solms, A Cloete (Old Students). Replacements: C Marais (OFS University) for Drotske, 4; J Coetzee (Old Greys) for A Venter, 62. Temporary substitute: J Coetzee for Cloete, 34-36.

ENGLAND: P Hull (Bristol); D Hopley (Wasps), S Potter (Leicester), M Catt, A Adebayo; S Barnes (Bath), S Bates (Wasps); G Rowntree (Leicester), G Dawe, J Mallett (Bath), M Bayfield (Northampton), M Poole (Leicester), L Dallaglio, D Ryan (Wasps, capt), S Ojomoh (Bath). Replacement: T Underwood (Leicester) for Catt, 65. Temporary substitute: T Underwood for Hopley, 6-14.

Referee: P Lombard (Durban).

There will be only one promotion and relegation place between the First and Second Divisions of the Courage league next season after the senior clubs yesterday acceded to the request of the England manager, Jack Rowell, for a single-season change to reduce the pressure on leading players before next year's World Cup.