Andrew Sheridan, who could be a contender for the strongest man in England, had his World Cup preparation rudely interrupted by an insect bite. Next Friday evening he is expected to lock horns with the Springboks in what will be one of the most intense physical confrontations in the tournament, beginning in the front row.
"South Africa place great emphasis on the power of their forwards, so we know it's going to be exceptionally hard in the scrum," Sheridan, a prop converted from lock-forward, said. "They are technically very good, they concentrate on the basics and work well together but they don't do anything out of the ordinary. They're big, strong blokes who push like hell."
England are forearmed. Under their scrum coach, Graham Rowntree, they spent hours at their training camp in Portugal working on an eight-man shove. "I'm not a great fan of talking about scrums all day long," Sheridan said, "but we've had some huge scrum sessions, man to man and against machines. We've also studied videos of the Springbok pack so we're not unprepared."
Sir Clive Woodward, the architect of England's triumph Down Under, believes the Red Rose brigade can surprise the Boks in Paris. "We've always had the Indian sign over South Africa and we have the players to beat them," he said. "If we do, our World Cup will take off."
En route to the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003, England accounted for the South Africans 25-6 in a pool match in Perth, and 20 of those points came from Jonny Wilkinson's boot. After he twisted an ankle in a non-contact training session, nobody is quite sure whether Wilkinson's golden boot will leave a footprint in this World Cup, but unless he makes a near-miraculous recovery he will not face the Boks.
As for the so-called Indian sign, England, admittedly a shadow of their former selves (no Wasps, Leicester or Bath players and no Sheridan, who was injured), conceded more than 100 points in two Tests against the Boks in the high veld in the summer. "There is very little talk about that," Sheridan said. Only two forwards who went on that apology of a tour, Mark Regan and Nick Easter, made it to France.
"There's no looking back," Sheridan added. "We're anticipating a top Test match and I don't think the Springboks hold any advantage. I haven't looked at the qualifying process closely enough to know which route through is the best." Win or lose, England should qualify for the quarter-finals, where they are likely to meet Australia or Wales, but World Cup champions are not in the habit of losing pool matches or anything else.
For their part, the Boks have been positively gung ho. "There is unique pressure on us which we gladly accept," their coach, Jake White, said. "Pressure is probably the one thing our players handle better than anyone. I'm very happy with where we are. I have a team with 860-odd caps between them and we've worked on this for the last four years. There's no doubt people in South Africa believe we can win this." One of them put his money where his mouth is, ringing Ladbrokes to place £150,000 on the Boks to win the whole damn shooting match.
As for Sheridan, he has fully recovered from the insect attack,which happened while he was training at Bath and left him in bed for five days. "Actually it was two bites on the leg which swelled up, leaving a huge blister," he said. "The consultant thought it was a wasp but I think he was guessing. Because of the strange weather some nasty insects have come over." It probably flew in from Pretoria.Reuse content