It was too quiet by half in downtown Bagshot yesterday. There was one wholly predictable adjustment to England's first-choice combination for this weekend's match with South Africa at Twickenham – Martin Johnson back as captain, Ben Kay down among the replacements – while Clive Woodward was, for once in his life, about as controversial as a zipped-up Bill Clinton. There was no talk of conspiracies or plots or intrigues, and Rob Andrew, supposedly the Lee Harvey Oswald of English rugby, did not merit so much as a mention.
Can England prosper under such benign conditions? If the past two weeks have revealed anything, it is that Woodward – and, by extension, his team – operates more effectively when there is a whiff of sulphur in the air. The manager reacted violently to criticism of his tactical and selectorial approach during the build-up to the Cook Cup Test with the Wallabies, whereupon his players laid into the world champions and won going away. Last week, Woodward's knickers were given an extra twist as rumours of an attempted palace coup swirled around the England camp. The result? One hundred and thirty-four unanswered points against Romania.
Now that stability has broken out, the focus is back on the rugby – disorientating, but true. Johnson, fully recovered from a broken left hand, has never been anything other than an automatic selection, and his presence reinforces an English pack already brimming with hostile intent. Kay can consider himself unfortunate – "Ben could not conceivably have done any more," Woodward agreed – but his time will come. At present, the captain and his faithful follower, Danny Grewcock, are the outstanding second row unit in Test rugby. The selectors must have spent all of 30 seconds pondering their options in this area.
There was even less debate over the remaining 13 positions, given the stratospheric level of performance against the Wallabies. Indeed, the only issue surrounded the make-up of the bench. Woodward has such confidence in Jason Robinson as a Test full-back that he has dispensed with the services of Matt Perry, who is now free to play some bottom-of-the-table club rugby with Bath. Ben Cohen, who looks rather more impressive in the white of England than in the black, green and gold of Northampton, covers the back three positions, while Bath's Mike Tindall is the spare centre.
"I think Martin Johnson is the world's No 1 forward, so that explains my thinking as far as the one change is concerned," Woodward pronounced, with a profound lack of contentiousness. "It was a big bonus to beat Australia without him, and without Lawrence Dallaglio too, but it's good to have him back. He's fired up for this one, I can tell you. When you're used to playing Test rugby against the best sides in the world and you suddenly find yourself off the scene, you realise how much it all means."
This game also means an enormous amount to the Springboks, despite the charm offensive launched by their coach, Harry Viljoen, who came very close to describing England as the best team in the business. Woodward is fully aware of the depth of South African desire: "The Boks are in a corner after losing to the French in Paris a couple of weekends ago, and that makes this a big game for both sides," he said. But the red rose manager also knows these tourists are in experimental mode.
"Test rugby is always highly physical, and the Boks are a tough team," said Woodward. "Aggression is embedded in their rugby culture and in their sporting history as a whole, and I admire that aspect. When I played the South Africans with the Lions in 1980, I couldn't believe the intensity they brought to the game. But Viljoen is trying to change their style, and it takes balls to do that in so demanding a rugby environment. He wants to keep the aggression, but add another dimension to it. I'm impressed with the things he's doing." Viljoen names his side today, and has decisions to make in midfield, in the front row and at loose forward. Maybe he will come up with some conspiracy theory of his own, just to make life interesting.Reuse content