Durban is a long way from West Park Rugby Club in Leeds, where England began their preparations for this spring’s Six Nations. As the crow flies, it is over six thousand miles in fact, traversing one ocean and the vastest continent on the planet. Somewhere beneath his unflappable, cheery exterior, Stuart Lancaster must feel every inch of that huge distance, at least in symbolic terms.
Having forged a side together from the embers of a desolate Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, Lancaster has deservedly shed the ‘interim’ prefix that haunted his job title. At a drenched Twickenham in March, his charges looked vanquished, beating Ireland comprehensively to signal the end of an outstanding campaign – only Scott Williams moment of brilliance prevented an unbeaten record. Now though, comes the most corrosive of acid tests.
A tour of South Africa regurgitates numerous clichés. There are going to be ‘physical challenges’. Each of the five matches – the midweek ones especially – will ‘massive battles’. A 42-man squad won’t just be taking on the Springboks or the respective Barbarians XVs; they will be thrust into five-week encounter with an utterly uncompromising rugby nation. That much should be taken for granted. Particulars are more intriguing.
The appointment of Mike Catt, in its immediate context, is a masterstroke. Returning to the country of his birth, the newly-instated backs coach will have far more to offer than strike moves and advice on running lines. Speaking a couple of days after the party landed in pastures new, he spoke very candidly to the assembled media and exposed his value.
“In general, South Africa is a very welcoming place,” explained Catt. “But it is also a very hostile environment when you get into rugby circles. The players will have to feel that for themselves. This tour is about who can and who can’t take what’s coming.”
While he is understandably reluctant to divulge as much in public, the presence of Lancaster’s newest recruit will be very encouraging to the likes of Mouritz Botha and Brad Barritt, returning to their homeland in the colours of an adopted nation – a unique undertaking that can only be fully understood by those with first-hand experience.
On a wider scale, this series represents a sturdy stepping stone on the road to 2015. England can cross it with a three good showings. It would be madness to mention as much before the end of June, though, as focus on the here and now – forgive the jump into cliché town – is imperative.
Among Catt’s 75 caps was the famous 27-22 triumph in Bloemfontein in the summer of 2000, a victory that drew a pulsating series level and proved that England’s golden generation were contenders on the world stage.
From there, Sir Clive Woodward fashioned 27 wins from the next 30 internationals, a run that ended immortally with the capture of the Webb Ellis trinket in 2003. Two of those results – beating New Zealand in Wellington with 13 men on the field and hijacking Australia at Melbourne’s Colonial Stadium – ensured that the Poms made the voyage Down Under with a crucial aura of invincibility, even on the other side of the world. Lancaster would welcome something symmetrical, but knows that his ranks lack the brilliance that Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson et al offered in their prime. A new route must be navigated.
These days, Woodward’s scrutiny over the England set-up is reduced to a Sunday Times column, the last two instalments of which have concentrated wholeheartedly on this upcoming attempt to conquer a gnarled southern hemisphere giant. A week ago, his piece presented a list of musts, ranging from the zany – bringing everyone, including injured players, on tour – to the blindingly obvious – that there is a psychological barrier surrounding trip to the other side of the equator.
Now, though Woodward must be revered for his immense achievements, his sentiments, in my opinion, landed somewhere in the region between irrelevant lecturing and smug patronising. As Scotland showed by tackling their (brave)hearts out at a sodden Ausgrid Stadium on Tuesday, there are plenty of less conventional ways to skin the proverbial cat.
Lancaster, Catt and the excellent Graham Rowntree head into Saturday with fresh ideas and a willing pool of players that has been galvanised tightly by the past five months. They will not be perturbed by Heyneke Meyer’s selection – the Springbok pack will be very raw and England can certainly target that area in order to rid an extremely experienced backline of impetus.
Of course, a trip south wouldn’t be right without mind games and, from a vantage point behind enemy lines, former skipper John Smit has made some compelling comments. The latest assertion by the Saracens hooker is that the visitors are first-Test favourites because Meyer’s men will be disjointed from Super 15 assignments. Given that South Africa have held extensive, regular training camps since their new head coach succeeded Peter de Villiers on January 27, take that with a sizeable pinch of salt.
For a slice of perspective, remember Sir Clive’s first trip abroad to face whom he to termed ‘the bad guys’. Fourteen years ago this month, his England – shorn of numerous first-choice starters, it should be stressed – embarked on a brutal run of defeats. 76-0 (Australia in Brisbane), 66-24, 41-10 (New Zealand in Dunedin and Auckland) and 18-0 (South Africa in Cape Town) was a horrific return, even from a truly hellish schedule.
Comparisons are futile for various reasons, but Lancaster’s lot will be far more competitive and besides, there is no need to justify the former schoolteacher from Leeds. He has earned the right to learn from his own mistakes, just as Woodward did.