United, the South Africans plan to make a major stand

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The Independent Online

Picking through the wreckage of South Africa's run-up to the World Cup - record defeats, allegations of racial splits, injuries, haphazard selections et al - and an interesting statistic emerges. The Springboks, champions in 1995 and third-place finishers in 1999, have lost only one match in the competition. And it took a flukey extra-time drop goal by Stephen Larkham for Australia to beat them.

Along the way they have conquered New Zealand (twice), Australia, England, France and Scotland. Widely ridiculed at home and abroad, the Springboks left the Cape of Good Hope this week for the Cup of No Hope. It's fair to say the car-crash fascination to following South African sport has extended to this 2003 crop.

Ousted from the last two cricket World Cups in bizarre circumstances, South Africa were denied hosting the 2006 football World Cup when an octogenarian New Zealander switched his vote. And on the rugby field the Boks have suffered record defeats during the reign of Rudolf Straeuli, including that 53-3 reverse at Twickenham last November.

"Remember this moment, boys. Remember the pain, for in Perth this is how England will feel," Corne Krige told his battered troops standing under their goalposts as Jonny Wilkinson unerringly slotted another conversion. Should the Boks manage to turn a 50-point drubbing into victory on 18 October it will represent one of sport's biggest comebacks. For one imagines that not even David Blaine could conjure that.

One thing that South Africans continue to do better than England is unite in the face of overwhelming adversity. Such is the expanding ex-pat population in Perth that the Subiaco Oval will feel like a home match, with a large proportion of the 43,000 crowd waving green and gold.

England are prohibitive favourites, and deservedly so. But while they have consistently declared they are "taking it one game at a time", South Africa are looking beyond their tournament opener against Uruguay. "England is the big one," said veteran winger Breyton Paulse. "That is what we have been focusing on for the last two or three weeks. Not a single tackle will be slipped. We're going to throw everything at it. We are super-fit. There will be no weak links on the day."

Straeuli, a member of François Pienaar's 1995 squad, has repeatedly asked to be judged on the World Cup and that alone. His side were again wooden spoonists in the 2003 Tri-Nations, where they also shipped 50 points against New Zealand, and he knows anything other than victory against England in a couple of weeks will see him out of a job. And they say Claudio Ranieri is under pressure to perform.

While the Boks are making all the right noises publicly as they promise their nation of sports fanatics the World Cup, privately the signals are not as convincing. "Sometimes being the underdog is a good position to be in," said a senior source. "I just hope the new year will sort out our problems, but I have my doubts," he added in reference to the looming commission of inquiry to look into racial allegations levelled by their former media manager.

Straeuli's selections, not helped by injury to key personnel, have come up with one centre (De Wet Barry) in a back line filled with utility players and two primitive kicking fly-halves, Louis Koen and Derrick Hougaard. The plan appears simple. Tackle everything that moves - and in some cases what doesn't - try to play the game in the opponents' half, and hope for some individual inspiration.

But in leaving Brent Russell behind, Straeuli has decided against using the singular most creative talent in the country, though Werner Greeff could produce a few gems should the ball be spun out further than inside-centre.

Likely defeat against England will result in a probable quarter-final against New Zealand, and even then Australia would lie in wait before a final place. Never have they been so written off. They wouldn't like it any other way.