England step into unknown in search of tour momentum
"We know how tall they are, how much they weigh, how old they are, where they play their rugby…and there's no video footage of them whatsoever." So said Simon Hardy, one of England's assistant coaches, as he weighed up the prospects for this afternoon's meeting with the South African Barbarians in Kimberley. If Hardy was in full head-scratching mode when it came to the opposition, he was far more clued-up on what matters to the tourists. "We have to get some momentum into this trip after the Test in Durban," he remarked. "You do that by winning games."
England have not played outside the major rugby centres of the Springbok nation since 2000, when Clive Woodward's men had three midweek games, including one in Kimberley, and won them all by a distance on the scoreboard, if not entirely comfortably in the physical sense. As they also squared the Test series, they returned home with a new-found confidence that did not evaporate for more than three years, by which time they were world champions.
This latest vintage expect no favours from their opponents today. "They'll be looking to stick one on us," Hardy said. "I suppose that's the phrase. There will certainly be a physical challenge and I want to see us take it on. It will be fascinating. For guys who spend their rugby lives playing in the Premiership, where analysis of the opposition is fairly heavy, this is a chance for them to go out there and play against people they know nothing about."
According to the New Zealand-based James Haskell, back in the England mix for the first time since the last World Cup campaign went pop, this will be no bad thing. "One of the things I've learned from playing Super 15 rugby alongside All Blacks like Andrew Hore and Adam Thomson is that they worry about themselves and what they're going to do, to the extent that they don't really know who they're playing against. With all the video analysis we do these days, you can almost think yourselves out of a game before you start. As a nation, we've often made the mistake of talking up the opposition too much."
By opting to play overseas, Haskell put his England career at considerable risk; indeed, he is here only because of injuries to Tom Croft, Tom Wood and Courtney Lawes, together with the long suspension imposed on the errant Northampton flanker Calum Clark. But as the 27-year-old forward from Windsor was at pains to point out, there has never been any weakening of his desire to wear the red rose.
"I've always said the reason I play rugby is to play for my country," he remarked. "It's been very interesting to see how things have developed since Stuart Lancaster took over as head coach. When I first spoke to him about what was going on, he said he was keen to get the mentality right in areas where perhaps it wasn't right before. I think we've always had the passion and the talent, but we've missed some of the nuances, like respect for the shirt and the fact that it's okay to spent time doing extras, to work hard and be competitive. I wondered whether people would just be doing what they were told, but no. The players really care and want to do well."
That last comment rang a bell. Among the concerns expressed by the less experienced players in the World Cup party was that they were criticised by some senior colleagues for "trying too hard in training". Under Lancaster, dedication is not considered a deadly sin.
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