England to renew World Cup hostilities with South Africa

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England are not entirely sure whether they will be served a potentially lethal double helping of Pacific Island brilliance in the pool stage of the 2007 World Cup, and have yet to discover whether they can expect a physical going-over by the rough-and-ready rednecks of Canada. But the holders of the Webb Ellis Trophy know this much: when the tournament begins in France some 40 months from now, they will run smack into the toughest of the tough. Yes, those lovely Springboks are back on the agenda, in capital letters.

England are not entirely sure whether they will be served a potentially lethal double helping of Pacific Island brilliance in the pool stage of the 2007 World Cup, and have yet to discover whether they can expect a physical going-over by the rough-and-ready rednecks of Canada. But the holders of the Webb Ellis Trophy know this much: when the tournament begins in France some 40 months from now, they will run smack into the toughest of the tough. Yes, those lovely Springboks are back on the agenda, in capital letters.

South Africa were the first nation out of the hat - or to be more accurate, the gigantic ceremonial brandy glass - when the draw was made here yesterday, and there were enough sharp intakes of breath from the invited audience to suggest that this re-run of last October's compelling contest in Perth will be worthy of the interminably long wait. In fact, the game has already been shortlisted as the competition's showpiece opener, which means it will almost certainly be played at Stade de France in Paris, where the Boks drop-goaled England out of the 1999 tournament.

"I'm delighted with the draw in the sense that we can base ourselves in France for the whole of the pool stage, and quite possibly for the whole of the tournament," said Andy Robinson, England's second-in-command, who represented the red rose fraternity in the absence of Clive Woodward. "We could have been drawn against Ireland in Dublin. We'll take on anyone, anywhere, but if we're going to have a World Cup in France, I'd prefer to play on French territory."

Robinson was referring to the one blindingly obvious stain on the 2007 competition - the short-sighted, politically-driven exercise in mutual back-scratching that resulted in France handing over a total of seven matches to Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Scotland, drawn with New Zealand, will play the All Blacks at Murrayfield; Wales, drawn with Australia, will have home advantage in Cardiff when the Wallabies come knocking.

The only saving grace of this dark piece of vote-trading is that the Irish, who have such an influential voice in rugby's affairs of state, have been pooled with France and will therefore have to play their most important group match on Tricolore soil. "Poor old Syd," remarked one observer, a trifle wickedly, as Dr Syd Miller, the foursquare Ulsterman who chairs the International Rugby Board and Rugby World Cup Ltd, completed the formalities. "He can't even fix his own draw."

On the face of it, the France-Ireland group is the least forgiving, in that Argentina are also likely to be involved in the guise of "Americas One". But the Scots will have to improve sharply on their recent Six Nations' form if they are to make the knock-out stage for the sixth consecutive tournament - Italy, their conquerors in March, are likely to be alongside them in Pool B - while Wales must pray that their World Cup bêtes noires, Samoa, materialise in England's group rather than their own.

As well as South Africa, England will play the winners of the Oceania qualifying tournament - traditionally, either Samoa or Fiji - and, in all probability, one of Canada, the United States and Uruguay. They will also play the second of the qualifiers from the last-chance repêchage competition, which promises to be less easy than it sounds. Tonga, the poorest of the Pacific's poor cousins, are already odds-on favourites to fill this 20th and final seat at the global jamboree.

Given the choice, England would rather not play the South Africans first up. The Boks have armed themselves with a sharp, forward-looking national coach in Jake White, as opposed to the Jurassically-tinged Rudi Straeuli, and several good judges expect them to be the equal of Australia and New Zealand come 2007. White certainly said all the right things yesterday, promising the South African population a new slate cleansed of the overt violence and boot-camp excesses of recent memory.

"I don't think South African rugby has even been lower than it is now," he confessed. "So many of us have been embarrassed by some of the things that have happened, and the result is that people are now suggesting it would be a fluke if the Boks were ever to win another World Cup. But is that correct? Are we really so poor a rugby nation? I do not believe it. We live in a rugby environment, we have a culture and a tradition of which we are proud, we have a strong player base. If we are true to ourselves and genuine in what we do, there is no reason why we shouldn't get this absolutely right in time for 2007."

White openly admitted he would follow Woodward's blueprint for World Cup success - a plan based on lavish resourcing, selectorial consistency and ruthless target-setting. "Why reinvent the wheel?" he asked. "Clive showed us how it should be done. It is no secret that England won the World Cup because they took it incredibly seriously. They could have set a world record of victories by beating the French in Marseille last August, but chose to field a second team because it suited their World Cup build-up. That is what you call focus."

Woodward has promised to be similarly focused in pursuit of a second title. Early indications are that England-South Africa 2007 will be even more of a slugfest than the 2003 version.

2007 WORLD CUP DRAW

Pool A
England
South Africa
Oceania 1
Americas 3
Repêchage 2

Pool B
Australia
Wales
Oceania 2
Americas 2
Asia 1

Pool C
New Zealand
Scotland
Europe 1
Europe 2
Repêchage 1

Pool D
France
Ireland
Americas 1
Europe 3
Africa 1

Quarter-finals:
1 Winner A v Runner-up B
2 Winner B v Runner-up A
3 Winner C v Runner-up D
4 Winner D v Runner-up C

Semi-finals:
Winner 1 v Winner 4
Winner 2 v Winner 3

Final:
Paris, 20 October

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