Joe Worsley is the one new face in England's starting line-up for this weekend's heavyweight 12-rounder with the Springboks at Twickenham - a highly significant promotion, given that the Wasps flanker now finds himself in the middle of the firestorm surrounding Schalk Burger, currently the most controversial player in all Christendom.
Joe Worsley is the one new face in England's starting line-up for this weekend's heavyweight 12-rounder with the Springboks at Twickenham - a highly significant promotion, given that the Wasps flanker now finds himself in the middle of the firestorm surrounding Schalk Burger, currently the most controversial player in all Christendom. The contest between two of the more athletic loose forwards of their generation will be central to the outcome, although the South African management suspect Burger, who has both the winning and the losing of this game in his out-sized hands, is more at risk from the officials than from any single opponent.
Jake White, the Springbok coach, went to war on Burger's behalf yesterday, claiming the blond ball-ripper's recent brushes with authority in Cardiff and Dublin were down to misunderstandings rather than misconduct. In fact, White went a whole lot further. Extraordinarily, he insisted Burger had been doing no more and no less at the breakdown than his rivals, but had been packed off to the sin bin with monotonous regularity because he was too damned good.
No one seriously questions the popular theory that the 21-year-old prodigy from Western Province is the form forward in international rugby, but White was surely stretching a point here. "I don't think so at all," the coach responded. "I've watched Schalk very closely on the match videos since we've been here, and someone is putting the nail into him. I'm getting the feeling Schalk is being penalised for things everyone else gets away with. Why? Maybe because he has made such a huge impact on the game. He's turned rugby upside down in the space of a year, and people seem to have a problem with that. We're in danger of dampening someone who could be a really great figure in the sport."
When the Boks played Wales at the Millennium Stadium 10 days ago, Burger was sent to the cooler towards the end of the first half, and substituted at the end of the second. During his absences, Wales scored no fewer than 27 of their 36 points.
Last Saturday at Lansdowne Road, where the tourists were engaged in a far tighter game with Ireland, he was again ordered to serve a period of penance on the touchline - a decision that cost the Boks much of their momentum. To describe White as unimpressed by refereeing attitudes towards his star turn scarcely scratches the surface of his anger.
"I wouldn't say Schalk is confused by all this; he understands the laws and knows what he's about," the coach continued. "It's other people who are confused. If Schalk wants to be one of the legends of the game he has to get through periods like this, and it's my job to educate him, to teach him how to handle it. But if the guy is doing nothing wrong, what do I tell him? Especially when his opponents are doing exactly the same things."
Springbok dreams of a first clean sweep of the home nations in more than 40 years went west at the weekend, when the Irish survived a late siege to record a five-point victory. Those five points equated to the first-half try scored by Ronan O'Gara, who tapped a penalty and scored in the corner while John Smit, the South African captain, was obeying an instruction from the referee, the New Zealander Paul Honiss, to warn his team about repeated infringements at the breakdown. Unsurprisingly, White was even more incandescent about that than about the treatment of Burger.
"You can't change the result of a match, and you're not left with much credibility if you jump up and down about one incident," he said. "But I've looked at that incident in an unemotional way, and I have to say it is every bit as bad as I thought at the time. We are a side who suffered in the past from a bad image, and I think we've addressed that. But if, on the next occasion a referee asks the captain to speak to the team, he says he'll do it when it suits him, we'll be accused of being impolite. Anyway, there is no way play would have been allowed to go on if Martin Johnson had been the captain involved."
One way or another, then, the Boks have their knickers in a twist - a fact that will not have gone unnoticed by Andy Robinson and the rest of the England hierarchy as they approach the first serious challenge of the post-Woodward era. Predictably, Robinson has retained 14 of the players who began the process of slaughtering an overmatched Canadian team at Twickenham three days ago. Worsley would have played in that game had he not been suffering from a minor leg injury, so Robinson clearly considers this his strongest available side.
There is one change on the bench, Harry Ellis of Leicester replacing Hall Charlton as scrum-half understudy. Jason Robinson remains in charge, with Mike Tindall as his vice-captain. Leadership was not much of an issue against Canada. Against a South African side seething over perceived injustices, it will be a very considerable issue indeed.
(v South Africa; Twickenham; Saturday, 2.30pm)
J Robinson (Sale, capt); M Cueto (Sale), H Paul (Gloucester), M Tindall (Bath), J Lewsey (Wasps); C Hodgson (Sale), A Gomarsall (Gloucester); G Rowntree (Leicester), S Thompson (Northampton), J White (Leicester), D Grewcock (Bath), S Borthwick (Bath), J Worsley (Wasps), L Moody (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester). Replacements: A Titterell (Sale), A Sheridan (Sale), B Kay (Leicester), A Hazell (Gloucester), H Ellis (Leicester), W Greenwood (Harlequins), B Cohen (Northampton).Reuse content