England vs South Africa: Stuart Lancaster forced to fight fires with Springboks looming

England will want to get back to winning ways after their narrow defeat to the All Blacks last weekend

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The Independent Online

Just when the England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, needed a distraction-free build-up to a Test match, Saturday’s meeting with South Africa in front of a sell-out Twickenham audience being the most significant of his tenure to date, he found himself buried under an avalanche of controversies. Awkward questions over poor crowd behaviour, player welfare and the lingering possibility of a Samoan boycott of next week’s international fixture left the Cumbrian firefighting his way through an unusually taxing public session.

No sooner had Lancaster confirmed his starting line-up for the set-to with an intimidating bunch of Springboks – he made just the one change to the side that lost in such disappointing fashion to New Zealand six days ago, the 20-year-old Anthony Watson replacing his injured Bath clubmate Semesa Rokoduguni on the right wing – than he was pressed on allegations of homophobic abuse aimed at the Welsh referee Nigel Owens during the All Blacks game.

“We work hard to get the core values of our sport ingrained into the England side and it’s important that we show respect to referees and opponents as a team and as a country,” he responded, before expressing his full support for a Rugby Football Union investigation into the matter. “The Twickenham crowd play a huge part in what we’re trying to do and I don’t think it was disrespectful of them to sing their way through the All Blacks’ haka last weekend. That was simply a response to a challenge. But there is no place whatsoever for abuse of any kind.”

Lancaster was also asked about the potential consequences of the touring Samoans, locked in a vicious dispute with their own governing body over pay and conditions, pulling out of their Twickenham date next Saturday night – a move that would disrupt England’s preparations for next year’s home World Cup. Even though the various rugby authorities believe there is no longer a serious risk of strike action by the Pacific islanders, the players’ anger levels remain high ahead of further negotiations scheduled to be held in France this weekend.

 

“I’m assured our game will go ahead as planned,” Lancaster said, “and none of this is affecting us as a group. We have enough to concentrate on, prioritising this Saturday’s match against a South African side coming here with all guns blazing. As far as I’m concerned, these things are uncontrollables.”

The coach was at his most adamant in insisting that the England back-room staff had followed, to the letter, the correct medical procedures in respect of the Northampton lock Courtney Lawes, who took a heavy blow to the head early in the second quarter of the All Blacks game, failed a pitchside cognitive test and spent the rest of the afternoon watching the action from the replacements’ bench. It was not until Thursday morning that Lawes was passed fit to reclaim his place in the engine room of the scrum.

“From my point of view,” Lancaster said, “the whole process has been ratified at the highest levels of the sport, and we have to trust that process. Courtney has been symptom-free all week, he’s gone through the protocols, been through a very comprehensive series of tests and ticked all the boxes.”

Watson’s promotion to the starting line-up after last weekend’s debut off the bench was the most clear-cut item on Lancaster’s lengthy agenda. “It is true that when we first brought Anthony into camp earlier this year, ahead of the Six Nations, it took him a while to find his feet,” said the coach. “But he has a far greater understanding now of what we’re about as a group, and that understanding is important when you’re as young as he is.

“I spoke to him after the All Blacks game and he told me how confident he’d been, how ready he’d felt for the occasion. That conversation was critical in convincing me that we have a player who’s not simply looking to survive the game, but wants to make a difference in winning the game. He’ll be tested for sure, especially by an opponent as experienced as Bryan Habana, but he’s been around our camp long enough now to know what we need from him.”

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