Brutal tour awaits emerging England
Stuart Lancaster's promising team visit South Africa in high spirits but will face their most difficult test to date
It is five years since England last set foot in Springbok country: a significant period of time in rugby terms, if nowhere near long enough for some of those who experienced the trauma of that adventure at first hand. The tourists travelled light back in 2007 – players from Bath, Leicester and Wasps were unavailable because of late-season finals – and were a whole lot lighter still come the Tests in Bloemfontein and Pretoria, thanks to an undiagnosable virus that swept through the camp and forced the majority of the squad to contemplate the challenge ahead from a seated position in the nearest available lavatory.
Amusing? It is easy to laugh about it now. "Bring your boots, by any chance?" said the head coach Brian Ashton on being introduced to the broadcaster Jim Rosenthal early in the trip. "If you did, you're playing. There's no other bugger." By the end of proceedings, Ashton had grown weary of delivering medical bulletins. Asked whether so-and-so might be fit for the last game, he gave the questioner one of his grumpy looks before answering the question with a question. "Do I look like a bloody doctor?" he inquired. Wisely, someone changed the subject.
We are in a different age now. When the new head coach Stuart Lancaster herded his 42-man squad through the departure lounge at Heathrow on Wednesday evening, he did so secure in the knowledge that he had selected from strength rather than weakness. If it goes without saying that strength is always relative in so physically demanding a game as rugby – injuries to Tom Croft, Tom Wood and Courtney Lawes, combined with the long-term suspension currently being served by Calum Clark, have left England exposed in the blind-side flanker department – Lancaster is in no worse a position than his South African counterpart, Heyneke Meyer.
As Ashton pointed out recently, an England coach's access to the best players in the country has been transformed by the thawing of relations between the Rugby Football Union and the Premiership clubs – relations that may lose a degree or two of warmth now the London Welsh promotion fandango is in full swing, but that's another story. These tourists have five games in the republic rather than two, have reinforcements on standby, and will have been together a full 12 days by the time they take the field against the Boks in Durban next weekend. Heaven.
Unfortunately, the distance between heaven and hell can be very short, especially when the journey is being made in South Africa – the very last rugby nation on earth to give a team of suckers an even break. If England, in high good spirits following their unexpected successes in the Six Nations, find a way of fronting up against the Springboks, as their series-squaring predecessors did in 1994 and 2000, this trip may come to be seen as a rite of passage. If they back down, as happened in 1984 and (through no particular fault of their own) in 2007, the consequences could be severe.
As Andy Robinson, who lost his job as England coach after finishing second to the Boks at Twickenham in late 2006, has long been fond of saying: "The South Africans don't simply set out to beat you. They like to beat you up as well." The truth of this was never more evident than when Jack Rowell's party travelled to the republic in '94 for what is now remembered as the roughest tour of the last quarter of a century, and if the 2000 trip under Clive Woodward was less bloodthirsty, there was nothing conciliatory about it. On both occasions, the serious fun and games broke out in the midweek matches, two of which have been built into this summers schedule.
Assuming Lancaster picks his younger, greener players for the fixtures against contrasting South African Barbarians selections in Potchefstroom and Kimberley – the likes of the Wasps wing Christian Wade, the London Irish centre Jonathan Joseph, the Leicester hooker Tom Youngs and the Bath flanker Carl Fearns – there will be a good deal of learning going on over the coming weeks. Joseph, in particular, could emerge as a live candidate for the home internationals in November.
For all that, there is another rugby truth to be considered: namely, that the success of this tour will be measured solely on events in the Test series. England have never before played a three-Test series in South Africa, or, indeed, in any other far-flung corner of the union landscape, so the scale of this challenge is of British and Irish Lions magnitude. Bearing in mind that a high-quality Lions side fell just short of the summit on their last visit in 2009, it will be quite an achievement if Lancaster and company make it all the way to the top.
There have, on the face of it, been worse moments to face these opponents in their own surroundings: Meyer is new to the head coaching role; the make-up of his back-room staff has only recently been finalised; the leadership of the team has been weakened by the retirements of senior players as influential as John Smit and Victor Matfield; there are injuries to a number of important forwards, including Schalk Burger, Juan Smith and Andries Bekker. While the new England have played five internationals under Lancaster, the new Boks have played the grand total of none.
In addition, Meyer must wait until early next week for a first meaningful training session with his squad, thanks to a Super 15 schedule that has pitched the Pretoria-based Bulls against the Cape Town-based Stormers this evening – a domestic squabble of the no-holds-barred variety, given the play-off ambitions of both teams. It may amuse the English to see a Springbok coach stuck up the South African equivalent of a gum tree for a change, but Meyer is struggling to see the joke.
Yet it is likely that when the teams take the field at King's Park next weekend – is there a better rugby stadium anywhere? – the Boks will be much the more experienced of the two. Meyer is on record as saying that he wants to retain the majority of those players who reached the quarter-finals of last year's World Cup and are still available, so England can expect to run into some formidable individuals: Heinrich Brüssow and Pierre Spies in the back row; Morne Steyn and Jean de Villiers in midfield; Bryan Habana on the wing. Even Fourie du Preez, the master scrum-half, might feature, despite his current attachment to club rugby in Japan.
England have been denied access to the most English of South African conditions: there is no game in Cape Town, where the rain often falls and the pitch usually takes a stud. Instead, they must play Tests in the tropical heat of Durban, the thin air of Johannesburg and the wind of Port Elizabeth. When the two up-country midweek games are thrown in, this trip is as demanding climactically as it is rugby-wise. Every player, from the red-rose captain Chris Robshaw down to the recently-drafted Gloucester front-row rookie Rupert Harden, will find themselves miles outside their respective comfort zones.
Which is pretty much the whole point of the exercise. As the Saracens wing David Strettle, the player most seriously affected by illness five years ago, said as he headed for the airport on Wednesday: "You want to test yourself, and win your games, in the environment where it matters most." If rugby matters as much in New Zealand as it does in South Africa, it does not matter more. The home World Cup in 2015 is still three years distant, but England's capacity to cope with the most brutal realities of the union code – with its aggression, its ruthlessness, its hostility – will be revealed over the next three weeks.
Four familiar Springbok dangermen... and one secret weapon
Forty tries into his international career – no Springbok has ever scored more – the celebrated wing from Benoni shows no sign of giving defences a rest. The fact that he lost his most talked-about race is not obviously a reason to be cheerful. It was against a cheetah, after all.
As the British and Irish Lions discovered to their intense disappointment three years ago, the outside-half kicks goals from pretty much anywhere, including large swathes of his own half. Superior marksmanship has been at the heart of many a Springbok triumph, and Steyn is a very superior marksman.
Bismarck du Plessis
Quite possibly the world's best hooker, the man from Bethlehem (Free State version rather than West Bank version) has been in blinding form at Super 15 level. Routinely described as a "human bulldozer", his strength is out of the ordinary, even by South African front-row standards.
When it comes to raw strength, the groundhog flanker from Bloemfontein is something else. During the final Test of the compelling Lions tour in 2009, he somehow managed to lift the Welsh forward Martyn Williams clean off the floor, dead weight, before returning him to his original position.
Who? We'll find out soon enough. The Springbok hierarchy are unusually excited about the 20-year-old lock from Cape Town. Fresh out of age-group and university rugby, he is said to offer size and aggression in equal measure. As he is 6ft 8in and almost 20st... well, you get the point.
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