Boks rumble into town as Cooper exits

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Just as Gareth Cooper, the Newport-Gwent Dragons scrum-half, was declaring himself unfit for Welsh international duty against South Africa this weekend, the Springboks arrived in Cardiff after an overnight flight from Johannesburg.

Just as Gareth Cooper, the Newport-Gwent Dragons scrum-half, was declaring himself unfit for Welsh international duty against South Africa this weekend, the Springboks arrived in Cardiff after an overnight flight from Johannesburg.

Maybe Cooper saw them coming and got out while the going was good. The Tri-Nations champions were everything the Red Dragonhood must have feared: enormous in physique, supremely conditioned, highly motivated in the heart-and-soul department and, most importantly of all, utterly confident in their ability to secure their first Grand Slam of the four Home Unions in more than 40 years.

"Confidence is a sportsman's most powerful tool," said John Smit, the Natal hooker who captains the side. "The levels of public expectation on us are non-negotiable, because that is the reality of the rugby environment from which we come. But we enjoyed success in the Tri-Nations series a few months ago - which always helps a team maintain faith in itself - and we know our coach, Jake White, has given us the weapons to win our wars. Every player in the squad has his history with Jake, and there is a lot of mutual trust between us."

White, who succeeded the discredited Rudi Straeuli after the Boks' desperate campaign in the 2003 World Cup, was lambasted by some of South Africa's more conservative figures for his tour selection - principally on the grounds that the rich racial mix in the 34-man party was not justified by form.

White was having none of it yesterday. Not for the first time, he reminded his countrymen that an inclusive approach was the only practical way forward for Springbok rugby.

"If you look at the sides I have selected in the past, at all age levels, I have never had worries about race or colour," he said, "and I certainly cannot understand people who see only negatives in the great steps forward we are taking. We see this six-week tour as a wonderful opportunity for young players of whatever background to experience the Springbok culture. There are some people who may not get a start on this trip, but no one has travelled as a passenger. This is about growth, about building on our recent successes while preparing for the World Cup in 2007.

"When I took this job on, our image wasn't what it should have been. In fact, it was probably at an all-time low. It was clear to me that to restore Springbok rugby to its former glory, it was vital to maximise our resources. There is no reason why we shouldn't be the strongest side in world rugby - we have the stadia, the climate, the history, the tradition, the player base. The important thing is to make the most of these advantages. At the end of last year, the players looked around them and saw themselves in a place they didn't want to be and didn't want to visit again. That is why they have worked so hard."

The final place on the tourists' bench has yet to be decided; Brent Russell and Gaffie du Toit are the contenders. Meanwhile, Cooper's withdrawal from the home bench means promotion for the exciting half-back prospect from Llanelli Scarlets, Michael Phillips.

On the European front, the Munster prop Marcus Horan could find himself in a heap of trouble after being cited for alleged racial abuse of the Samoan centre Elvis Seveali'i during the victory over Neath-Swansea Ospreys last Sunday. Horan is also accused of punching Seveali'i and aiming a boot at the wing Richard Mustoe. In their turn, Munster have cited Mustoe for allegedly stamping on Horan's head.

* Northampton have fined their back-row forward Darren Fox and will not appeal against his eight-week ban for head-butting during last month's Heineken Cup win over Glasgow.

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