Sense of adversity threatening the England dream

Rugby World Cup: Hill and Dawson ruled out of today's crucial match against South Africa as Woodward begins to lose patience with organisers
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The message "Boere-oorlog ll" scrawled on the wall of the South African team room in Fremantle says pretty much everything about the Springbok attitude towards this afternoon's meeting with England at the Subiaco Oval here. It can be translated in a couple of ways, but "The Second Boer War" is the most popular version. Under the circumstances, Clive Woodward and the rest of the England management had every reason to feel embattled as they went about their fine-tuning work yesterday.

England remain strong favourites to win this match and virtually guarantee themselves a place in the softer half of the knock-out draw; a half not expected to include either the Wallabies, the reigning champions, or the All Blacks, the hottest try-scoring act in the tournament. But yesterday was undeniably a bad day for Woodward, who not only lost two massively influential big-game players, the Northampton scrum-half Matthew Dawson and the Saracens loose forward Richard Hill, to dodgy hamstrings - no particular surprise, despite a series of amateur-hour attempts to convince a sceptical audience of their fitness - but also lost his rag with a gaggle of Australian television crews as they filmed his team's final dress rehearsal.

Dawson and Hill were among those hurt during last weekend's 80-point victory over Georgia - an easy enough night's work on the face of it, but unusually expensive on the casualty front. Kyran Bracken, who did not survive the warm-up, let alone take part in the game, has recovered from his back problems and will face the Boks, always assuming he does not go into spasm the moment he bends down to tie his bootlaces. Up front, Hill's place on the blind-side flank has been awarded to the boundlessly enthusiastic Lewis Moody. Andy Gomarsall and Joe Worsley have been promoted to the bench.

Bracken is an experienced hand - 47 caps, a decade of international service - who fully understands the rules of engagement when the Springboks come visiting: stay calm, tackle like hell and duck when the big nasty bloke in the green shirt decides to deliver a right hook. In perhaps the finest performance of a career cruelly undermined by injury, he drove England to their famous victory in Bloemfontein in the summer of 2000, a watershed moment for the Woodward regime and the first sign of a global power shift towards Twickenham. If he remains in one piece, he will give as good as he gets, Joost van der Westhuizen or no Joost van der Westhuizen.

But the loss of Hill is a desperate blow, not least because the Springboks fancy themselves in the back-row department. "I have no qualms about Moody playing from the start - in the past, I've picked him ahead of both Lawrence Dallaglio and Neil Back," Woodward said. Then he paused and added: "But I've never dropped Richard." It was a telling comment. Hill has been the cement in the England brickwork since Woodward succeeded Jack Rowell as coach in 1997; only Martin Johnson and Jonny Wilkinson offer more in the way of expertise and reassurance in the face of extreme adversity.

And a sense of adversity has been growing inside the England camp all week. The Wallaby propagandists have been up to their usual tricks, picking away at carefully selected aspects of the red rose game - "We expect to get blasted wherever we go, and as we've only been here a fortnight and played one match, it will only get worse," Woodward said - while John O'Neill, the chief executive of the Australian Rugby Union, tacitly criticised England yesterday for failing to meet their "corporate responsibilities" and fulfil their "ambassadorial role".

For all that, it was the training-ground pantomime that really got Woodward's goat. Seriously excited by the remote possibility that Prince Harry might turn up to cast an eye over the gallops - "As if," fumed the coach - the broadcasters set up their hardware on the roadside and zoomed in on the closed part of the session. One crew opted for the aerial route, and filmed the proceedings from a helicopter. At some point during this tournament, England are going to have a major falling out with the organisers. The temperature is rising by the day.

All of which suits the Springboks down to the ground. Ever since England put 50 points past an inexperienced and wayward South African team in London last November, they have been dismissed as no-hopers; subsequent injuries to a number of their most threatening attacking backs and a nasty racism scandal have further weakened them in the eyes of an English rugby public increasingly caught up in their own superiority complex. The truth of the matter is that the Boks believe they can win.

They base this belief on a number of factors, some of them more relevant to the here and now than others. They glory in the fact that for 100 years, they were among the two or three best teams on the planet; they remind anyone within earshot that they have lost only one World Cup fixture, and that in extra time to the eventual champions. To these points, England can legitimately respond: "So what?" However, the favourites will be more concerned at the pace and flair of Joe van Niekerk and Juan Smith in the South African back row, of the mature Van der Westhuizen's autumnal flowering, of the warrior values extolled by Corne Krige, Bakkies Botha and the intriguing newcomer to the Springbok pack, Christo Bezuidenhout. As Andy Robinson, Woodward's second-in-command, said yesterday: "We know perfectly well how the Boks will approach this game, but that doesn't mean we respect them any the less. This will be a very, very hard game."

If England, well equipped to survive this test of their mettle provided they hold their nerve, end today on top of the Pool C table, they can dare to dream of glories ahead. If they lose, they dare not show their faces in the city known as "Little Pretoria".