Vir: Howard Johnson
End-of-season southern hemisphere tours are notoriously tricky affairs. But can England re-write history and enjoy a successful visit to South Africa? Rugby Rugby’s Howard Johnson investigates…
England Head Coach Stuart Lancaster was rightly hailed as a great coach after beginning his tenure in charge of the senior England team with a ‘four wins, one loss’ 2012 Six Nations back in March. The number of victories and the manner in which they were achieved (with endeavour, spirit, tenacity and skill all very much present and correct) led to the likeable Northerner being elevated from his position as Interim Head Coach to the bona fide article in double-quick time. ‘Good for him,’ says I. Lancaster surely did enough to merit the opportunity to lead the side long-term and the time to put his vision into place.
But as I pointed out on a number of occasions during the Six Nations, equally as important was the fact that Lancaster proved himself a lucky coach too. England could easily have lost in Scotland and would have gone down in Italy had the Azzurri been blessed with a kicker of even average quality on the day. It could have been none from two with everyone baying for blood. But Lady Luck smiled on Lancaster, that wasn’t what happened, and aren’t we glad that things turned out so very differently?!
Now, however, the honeymoon period is over. Why? Because when Lancaster recently announced his 42-man squad to tour South Africa in the summer he wasn’t able to call upon a number of key players who’ve been ruled out of the whole affair through injury. When Lancaster’s men set out on what is a daunting five-game tour, featuring three tests against the Springboks, they will have to do without Tom Croft, Tom Wood, Courtney Lawes, Charlie Sharples, Joe Simpson and Rob Webber. Three of these players – Croft, Wood and Lawes – would have been in with more than a realistic shout of making the actual test side. See what I mean about unlucky? And then there’s also this to consider. The England group features more than a quarter of its ranks who have precisely zero full international caps between them. So if these boys are to make a decent fist of things in South Africa and continue the good work that has undoubtedly been done up to now, then Lancaster will surely need all of the luck he can muster.
But let’s be bold and assume that luck does remain with the men in white, while not completely losing our grip on reality. What can we seriously expect from this England team? Can they pull off the impossible and record a series win? Well, as Lancaster himself has said: “There’s a real excitement about this squad. We have a massive challenge ahead of us, but it’s one that everybody involved – players, coaches and management – is looking forward to.” Massive challenges are what legends-in-the-making thrive on, of course. But as massive challenges go, this one really is… well, massive.
New Springboks Head Coach Heyneke Meyer, who knows a thing or two about English rugby after an admittedly short stint in charge of Leicester Tigers, has been keen to talk up the Boks’ own injury problems, with flanker Juan Smith on the long-term ‘out-of-action’ list and fellow back rower Schalk Burger also in danger of missing the series. But Meyer has also spoken of his delight at the level of enthusiasm in South African rugby ranks for representing the nation after conducting a ‘getting to know you’ tour of the country ahead of three ‘planning camps’. And when has there ever been such a thing as an easy rugby tour of South Africa?
Jaunts to the southern hemisphere have traditionally been used to introduce new players to the senior England environment and to assess what talent exists outside of the senior core. This is a situation that has developed out of necessity, really, with any number of key players inevitably either injured at the end of a long, tough season or simply knackered and in need of a rest. So it would be ludicrous to be focusing entirely on English results on this upcoming tour. Not when one member of the squad, Tom Youngs (brother of scrum half Ben), has never even played at Premiership level in his position of hooker.
Lancaster has a delicate balancing act to achieve. Aims for the tour (which clearly won’t be publicly stated) may well go beyond simple results, but the Head Coach can’t afford to come back home with three test defeats under his belt while saying, ‘But at least some youngsters got to see what test rugby is all about’. Well maybe he can, actually, because that’s exactly what happened to Clive Woodward in Australia on the infamous 1998 ‘Tour Of Hell’. After being humiliated 76-0 by the Aussies in Brisbane, five years later Woody was back in the same country lifting the World Cup. So even a humiliating whitewash wouldn’t be the end of the world. But lucky Lancaster knows that momentum is a precious commodity that makes any rugby coach’s task infinitely easier. Having built up a considerable head of steam in the Six Nations the England Head Coach will be determined not to take two steps backwards. It promises to be fascinating stuff!
ENGLAND’S 42 MAN SQUAD TO TOUR SOUTH AFRICA
Forwards: Botha (Saracens), Cole (Leicester), Corbisiero (London Irish), Doran-Jones (Northampton Saints), Dowson (Northampton), Fearns (Bath), Gray (Harlequins), Hartley (Northampton), Haskell (Otago Highlanders), Johnson (Exeter), Kitchener (Leicester), Launchbury (London Wasps), Marler (Harlequins), Mears (Bath), Morgan (Scarlets), Mullan (Worcester), Palmer (Stade Français), Parling (Leicester), Robshaw (capt, Harlequins), Robson (Harlequins), Stevens (Saracens), Waldrom (Leicester), T Youngs (Leicester).
Backs: Allen (Leicester), Ashton (Northampton), Barritt (Saracens), Brown (Harlequins), Care (Harlequins), Dickson (Northampton), Farrell (Saracens), Flood (Leicester), Foden (Northampton), Goode (Saracens), Hodgson (Saracens), Joseph (London Irish), Lowe (Harlequins), Monye (Harlequins), Strettle (Saracens), Tuilagi (Leicester), Turner-Hall (Harlequins), Wade (London Wasps), B Youngs (Leicester Tigers).
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