We'll fight to the end! Lancaster targets a win over Springboks to top off chaotic season
22:48 GMT, 22 June 2012
England's full-spectrum season finally comes to an end at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Saturday and Stuart Lancaster will demand that his players conclude their ‘long, long journey’ with a glorious, stirring sign-off.
What began in mid-June last year has been a campaign of unprecedented turbulence and drama and fluctuating fortunes for the national team.
Twelve months ago and more they were preparing for a World Cup under the guidance of manager Martin Johnson, as Six Nations champions, and from that starting point the ride has been remarkably, relentlessly eventful.
Getting ready: England captain Dylan Hartley talks to head coach Stuart Lancaster on Friday
There have been 16 Tests, two
coaching regimes, several retirements, resignations and dismissals, one
damaging, prolonged period of blood-letting and in-fighting, belated
apologies, botched recruitment operations, famous victories and dire
This has been the season when
England’s rugby team veered into soap-opera territory for a time, with
dwarf-tossing, bungee-jumping, heavy-drinking, ferry-leaping
controversies. Then came the clean-up process, overseen by Lancaster as
the interim head coach who became a permanent one.
The rollercoaster has hurtled on from
the hope of the Six Nations to the frustration of failing to finalise
the coaching line-up and on to the narrow Test defeats in Durban and
There have been further jolts on the
injury front, with Alex Corbisiero ruled out on Friday of the series
finale with a knee problem, leading to Joe Marler being reinstated at
loosehead prop. That setback ends a grim week which has seen the
enforced withdrawal of captain Chris Robshaw, Ben Youngs and Ugo Monye.
What awaits today is an occasion
demanding one last almighty effort from weary bodies. England must
somehow muster the energy and fire to combat another Springbok onslaught
and dredge up the spirit of defiance and invention to overcome it.
As an example of the demands on the
players, take Dan Cole. The Leicester tighthead has played in 15 of his
country’s 16 Tests this season, anchoring the scrum.
He has endured the low of losing the
World Cup quarter-final to France in Auckland and savoured the high of
turning the tables on them five months later in Paris. Along the way he
has also helped the Tigers to another Aviva Premiership Final and now,
this evening, he has to lock horns with the Beast, Tendai Mtawarira, one
One last push: England in training on Friday
With the series already lost, so
little fuel left in English tanks and their inspirational leader out of
action, it would be easy to imagine the tourists being overwhelmed. But
having been through so much together, there is no shortage of
Many of the players have travelled so
far on official business, from Bagshot to Twickenham, Cardiff and
Dublin, on to Auckland, Dunedin and Queenstown, back to Leeds and
Loughborough, up to Edinburgh, over to Rome and Paris, then down here to
Durban, Kimberley, Johannesburg, Potchefstroom and now, finally, Port
So many stories and emotions and
memories along the way will drive the collective desire to ensure the
last memory is a positive one.
‘It has been a long journey for a lot
of these players, from before the World Cup,’ said Lancaster. ‘The
World Cup came and went, then the coaching team changed, we went through
the Six Nations and then this tour. It has been a long, long journey
and we want to end it with a win. I don’t agree with the concept of a
“dead rubber”. To me, there is no such thing as a dead rubber in the
Star man: South Africa's Tendai Mtawarira on Friday
‘On Monday I asked Lee Mears and Ugo
Monye – who were involved with the Lions in 2009 – about how it felt
going into that last game, and how that win lifted how they felt the
tour had gone. It’s important to finish the season well.’
Of course, England cannot call upon
the same array of firepower as the Lions could, but Lancaster and his
assistants, Graham Rowntree and Mike Catt, once again have been bold in
Alex Goode makes his first Test start
as a full back who can carve open defences but also keep them turning
with an effective kicking game. The exciting but raw midfield pairing of
Manu Tuilagi and Jonathan Joseph have been kept together in the hope
that this time, if they can just have more front-foot ball to work with,
they can trouble the home side’ s aggressive defence.
Without Youngs, England have turned
to the revitalised Danny Care – pace replacing pace. Without Robshaw,
James Haskell returns, so there’s no power deficit with that change.
Lancaster will need Thomas Waldrom to
carry with the same authority for England as he does for Leicester, to
match the exploits of home forwards such as Bismarck du Plessis. At
least the tourists don’t have to contend with the rampaging Willem
Alberts this time, as he is injured. Nevertheless, Heyneke Meyer’s side
will again prove difficult to stop if they build up a head of steam.
In the absence of Robshaw, there is a
huge onus on stand-in skipper Dylan Hartley to provide a lead by
playing with raw intensity and physicality, right on the edge. The
Northampton skipper is one of those who has experienced all the extremes
of this crazy campaign, so he will not lack desire to round it off
well, but his team, try as they might, will surely fall short again.
A series whitewash would be a cruel outcome, but that is what beckons.