England fear prospect of enlightened Springboks

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The Independent Online

Jake White's idea of launching a sporting offensive may be immeasurably more charming than Rudolf Straeuli's or Corne Krige's or Joost van der Westhuizen's - the new Springbok coach would require a crash course at the Quentin Tarantino Academy of Behavioural Science to meet the standards set by that little trio - but all this "mea culpa, God forgive us" stuff should not blind England to the fact that the South Africans are still out to get them. More so than ever, if that is humanly possible.

Jake White's idea of launching a sporting offensive may be immeasurably more charming than Rudolf Straeuli's or Corne Krige's or Joost van der Westhuizen's - the new Springbok coach would require a crash course at the Quentin Tarantino Academy of Behavioural Science to meet the standards set by that little trio - but all this "mea culpa, God forgive us" stuff should not blind England to the fact that the South Africans are still out to get them. More so than ever, if that is humanly possible.

They have solid grounds for optimism, too. As White pointed out after the World Cup draw in Dublin on Wednesday, the lion's share of the Springbok pack that gave England such a hurry-up in Perth last October will be in their prime come 2007. Danie Coetzee and Victor Matfield will be 30, no age at all for Test-class tight forwards; Bakkies Botha will be 28, Joe van Niekerk 27 and the brilliant Juan Smith a mere pup at 26. Other forwards of 2003 vintage - the prop Faan Rautenbach and the flankers Schalk Burger and Danie Rossouw - will also be going concerns. Give these blokes three and a half years of hard yakka at international level, and they will punch holes in granite for the Bokke cause.

"Of all the major rugby nations, South Africa are the interesting ones - quite possibly, the really dangerous ones." The words of Michael Foley, a World Cup-winning hooker with the Wallabies in 1999 and now a successful coach at Bath, will register loud and clear with the England hierarchy, who must spend the next 48 hours sorting the wheat from the chaff before naming their party for the summer tour of New Zealand and Australia. Foley suspects the Boks, armed with a clear vision of the road ahead and the kind of enlightened leadership White seems certain to provide, will lead the southern hemisphere challenge when the Webb Ellis Cup next goes up for grabs. He may well be proved right.

By some peculiar process of sporting osmosis, South Africa now find themselves in the territory England occupied after the World Cup meeting between the two countries five years ago - a quarter-final won hands down by an extraordinarily competitive Bokke team led by Van der Westhuizen, who symbolised the warrior-like spirit of his team by playing the entire tournament without one of his knees. That entire South African side was on its last legs - of the 18 players who took the field in Paris that day only Van der Westhuizen featured in the 2003 tournament - while England, a little younger by and large, were able to regroup and move on together. No fewer than 10 of their starting line-up made it to Australia last year, including seven of the pack.

Suddenly, the boot is on the other foot. England's World Cup-winning side is breaking up more quickly than a Hollywood marriage: Martin Johnson, Neil Back, Jason Leonard, Kyran Bracken and Paul Grayson have called it quits, and few in the loop expect Matthew Dawson and Will Greenwood to make it through another year. Richard Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio are full of vim and vigour, but 2007 is not a realistic target for either man. Jonny Wilkinson and Phil Vickery are in pieces, Julian White and Mike Catt are the wrong side of 30, Ben Kay is so far out of form that he cannot get a start for Leicester. Continuity may have been Clive Woodward's watchword between 1999 and 2003, but in terms of the next World Cup cycle, he has precious little to continue with.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that Woodward is now in a more difficult position than any he has experienced since the late 1990s. His player base is huge, both in quantity and quality; the physicality and hard-headedness of the Premiership has produced a raft of international candidates in all but a couple of troublesome positions. But how are these newcomers to be tested when summer touring has died the death of a thousand fixture-list cuts and Woodward himself will spend much of next season in Lions mode? In 2000, a few months after the record defeat by the Boks at Stade de France, England undertook a five-match tour of South Africa. They played Tests in Pretoria and Bloemfontein - mighty occasions both, albeit against a Springbok side already in transition - and midweek matches in Potchefstroom, Kimberley and Brakpan. Those dirt-tracker games were physical in the extreme (just ask Darren Garforth, who left Brakpan looking for all the world like a beaten-up Cyclops on Ernie Wise legs) and they gave Woodward a precious insight into the competitive souls of a number of his emerging players. Something similar happened in Argentina in 2002, where the likes of Kay and Lewis Moody came of age.

Touring 2004-style is very different and, in terms of rebuilding, fairly useless. Next month's trip to the southern hemisphere features only three matches, two Tests against the All Blacks and one against the Wallabies, and, as a result, Woodward is working on the basis of a bare 30-man party, full of familiar faces. The coach might stretch a point and take 32, but the vast majority of the uncapped underclass who might have benefited from a month of red-rose activity will be packed off to North America for the annual Churchill Cup tournament. The presence of the New Zealand Maori alongside Canada and the USA will ensure this is not quite the soft option it was last year, but whichever way you look at it, Calgary and Edmonton are not Dunedin and Auckland.

While the Springboks have already identified the core of their 2007 side and have committed themselves to 25 Tests over the next two years as a means of hammering that team into shape, England are much further back in the mix. Since the World Cup, the Sale forward Chris Jones and the Bath outside-half Olly Barkley have pushed themselves up the pecking order; so too has Barkley's clubmate, the South African-born tight-head prop Matt Stevens, who might have been capped during the Six Nations Championship but for Woodward's counter-productive loyalty to the ageing Leonard.

Yet a number of other players expected to feature at the next World Cup - the Worcester-bound scrum-half Clive Stuart-Smith, the Leicester lock Louis Deacon, the Harlequins wing Ugo Monye, the Wasps centre Ayoola Erinle, the Gloucester No 8 James Forrester - have yet to come within a bull's roar of senior selection. These people need fast-tracking, but the demise of "real" touring limits the opportunity for accelerated development.

When Woodward announces his senior party on Monday, left-field selections will be miserably thin on the ground. The loose-head props are likely to be Trevor Woodman and David Flatman, with White and Stevens at tight head. The locks? Woodward will almost certainly stick with Kay, rather than take a punt on Deacon or Gloucester's Alex Brown, along with Danny Grewcock, Simon Shaw and Steve Borthwick. Dallaglio, Hill, Jones and Joe Worsley are certainties among the back-rowers, and if Woodward is minded to ignore the claims of Bath's Andy Beattie at this juncture, he might be tempted to take two specialist open-side flankers. Andy Hazell of Gloucester, Michael Lipman of Bath, and a long-forgotten veteran of the 1998 "tour of hell", Pat Sanderson of Harlequins, are all under consideration.

Barkley and Charlie Hodgson will travel as the outside-halves in this Jonny-less party while half-a-dozen centres are chasing the other midfield positions: Greenwood, Mike Tindall, Stuart Abbott, Ollie Smith, Henry Paul and Mike Catt. And the wide men? The good folk of Sale would demand places for both Mark Cueto and Steve Hanley, having watched them run riot at Premiership level, but Tom Voyce, of Wasps, has a better chance of joining the usual suspects - Jason Robinson, Josh Lewsey, Ben Cohen and James Simpson-Daniel.

Which leaves the Old Mother Hubbard positions of scrum-half and hooker. England have Dawson, whose fitness is suspect, and Andy Gomarsall, who is hardly in the best of nick, as their senior half-backs. Will Woodward promote Stuart-Smith on the basis of his age-group reputation - as the youngster's senior appearances are rarer than rocking-horse produce, there is no other evidence - or turn to Leicester's Harry Ellis, who is at least playing rugby in public?

The hooking role is equally problematic. Steve Thompson is the undisputed number one, despite being approximately 50 per cent of the player he was a year ago, with the 32-year-old Mark Regan as his ancient understudy. Next in line is Andy Titterrell of Sale. Titterrell is both quick and gifted, but there are bigger hookers swotting up for their GCSEs.

England are not at all confident of winning any of their matches this summer, and should they lose all three, Woodward will be contemplating a record of five defeats in six outings. Such pain would be tolerable, almost welcome, if the 2007 vintage was certain to gain from it. If, however, the trip produces neither results nor players, Woodward will be guilty of a failure of imagination. And who would have predicted that, back in 1997?

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