So it has come to this. England play South Africa at Twickenham this afternoon - the first of four meetings with the Springboks leading into a fifth during the pool stage of next year's World Cup - knowing that the win-or-bust element has arrived 10 months early. Should Andy Robinson's fragile side lose against a team with deep-seated problems of their own, the consequences will be dire both for the coach and his captain, Martin Corry. Even if they chisel out a victory, there is no guarantee of salvation. The atmosphere is far too feverish for that.
The hounds of hell have been running since the curtain descended on last weekend's miserable performance against Argentina, many of them unleashed by Rob Andrew, the elite director of rugby. Andrew's public criticism of Corry's on-field leadership wounded the Leicester No 8, who responded yesterday with considerable dignity while leaving his audience in little doubt that he was smouldering away underneath. Robinson cannot have been amused by this breaking of ranks either, even though he did not find himself on the rough end of Andrew's tongue.
"A lot of things have been said," Corry acknowledged. "It seems to be open season on the England side and I've taken a fair bit of flak. To my mind, it's now a matter of pooling all the emotion swirling around the camp and using it to deliver a positive performance. It's a huge challenge, but I've never ducked a challenge in my life and I'm not going to start now.
"There is a feeling of anger amongst the players in relation to what happened against the Pumas. We're not going around snarling at each other or smashing doors at every opportunity, but there is an undercurrent, a tetchiness. That's good, I think. It means people are desperate to get out there and play."
There has been any amount of theorising on the subject of England's decline since winning the Webb Ellis Trophy in Sydney four days shy of three years ago - a slippage that has taken them from the top side in the international game to seventh in the rankings. (If they lose today, they will drop to eighth behind the Scots. No, honestly.) The vast majority of the Rugby Football Union point the finger at the Premiership clubs, who in turn are given to wondering whether the coaching at Test level is anywhere near good enough.
The former captain Martin Johnson, who might be said to know a thing or two, thinks Francis Baron, the RFU chief executive, has some explaining to do. And Baron himself? Having initiated the appointment of Andrew, he now has someone to blame.
And so it goes on. The fact of the matter, of course, is that this England team is nowhere near as good as the 2003 version. The various coaches and selectors have failed to fill the chasms created by the retirements of Johnson, Neil Back and Will Greenwood, or paper over the cracks that emerged when Jonny Wilkinson, Phil Vickery, Richard Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio were incapacitated by long-term injury. It has been the bane of Robinson's life that those players capable of growing into figures of influence, given the grace of God and a following wind - Matt Stevens and Steve Borthwick up front; Olly Barkley and Iain Balshaw in the backs - have spent longer in the treatment room than the dressing-room.
It is perfectly possible these players will reach next year's World Cup in peak condition, but the likes of Robinson and Corry will not expect to be there with them if things go wrong today. This is the must-win match to end them all, and the fact that the biggest hitters in the Springbok game - Os du Randt, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Joe van Niekerk, Schalk Burger and Fourie du Preez, to name but half a dozen - are currently soaking up the sun and surf back home merely increases the force of the wintry winds blowing around the ears of the England hierarchy. Robinson will not want to hear this, but even if his team prevail, the response from his critics may be a resounding "so what?"
Not that the Boks will be found wanting in the desire department. They too have been pilloried as a result of last weekend's events - Ireland won far too comfortably in Dublin for the liking of the hard-headed rugby folk on the high veld - and are prepared to come out fighting, if their body language is anything to go by. It could be a rough Test, not simply because the spectacularly undisciplined Butch James is wearing the No 10 shirt for South Africa, but because all rugby players under fire tend to reach for the flame-thrower.
Robinson considers it essential that England maintain self-control. "Yes, we're looking for one big performance," he said. "This team has real potential, and it has to come out this weekend. But the way to deliver that is to concentrate on our processes, make the right decisions at the right times and be accurate in what we do."
Corry, on the other hand, is ready for some give and take in the darkened recesses. "It will be a physical game, as it always is against the Boks, but that doesn't concern me at all because we're the ones who mean to make it physical," the captain stated. "It's what we have to do to get back to where we want to be. I look on this as the biggest challenge I've faced, and the same goes for the team and everyone associated with it."
England have not been seriously beaten-up, as opposed to beaten, by the ever-aggressive Boks since Nick Mallett's team smashed them all over Twickenham in 1997, three games into the then unknighted Clive Woodward's tenure as head coach-cum-manager. They stood their ground in Cape Town at the end of the "tour from hell" a few months later, going down 18-0 in a deluge; lost one of the more peculiar quarter-finals in World Cup history in 1999 because Jannie de Beer found himself congenitally incapable of missing with his drop-goal attempts; and were profoundly unfortunate to to finish second in Pretoria in the summer of 2000 - a match that marked Robinson's introduction to coaching at Test level. Since then, everything has gone the way of the red rose.
On the face of it, there is no reason to believe the world champions will not record a seventh straight victory over the tourists today. Only one member of the South African starting line-up, the captain John Smit, has 40 or more caps to his name; England, by contrast, can point to Josh Lewsey, Ben Cohen, Ben Kay, Joe Worsley and Corry himself in this regard.
Indeed, the Boks are shot through with inexperience. But the home side are in the throes of a crisis, and will be playing in front of an audience dangerously low on tolerance. Experience counts for something in circumstances like these, but nerve and courage mean even more. Do England have these qualities? We will know come teatime.
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Back between the shafts after injury, the best winger in England finds himself face-to-face with the most dangerous counter-attacker in South Africa, the super-quick Bryan Habana. Cueto's defensive qualities - strong tackling, intelligent positioning, dependable kicking - will be every bit as crucial as his try-poaching ones.
It is stand-and-deliver time for Hodgson, whose scratchy contributions against New Zealand and Argentina helped to create this mess. The Sale outside-half is a match-winner when the stars are properly aligned but, with the intimidating Butch James coming into orbit, heaven alone knows how he will perform.
Kay runs the line-out, a primary source of possession for any team. The Springboks expect much from this department - even though their best locks are relaxing back in South Africa, they have a full hand of tall, athletic jumpers. England must be quick-thinking, inventive and accurate. They dare not mess up here.
One of the more mysterious figures in the international game, the Wasps flanker has been recalled to perform a big-tackling role against the route-one Springbok forwards. The owner of a half-century of caps, some of which were earned without anyone noticing, Worsley needs to be at his most visible this afternoon.Reuse content