Storm warning for Lancaster as England coach braced for ferocious challenge
20:36 GMT, 8 June 2012
Stuart Lancaster described England’s
build-up to today’s first Test against South Africa as ‘the calm before
the storm’ — rightly reflecting the thunderous confrontation which
awaits his team.
The series opener at Kings Park
stadium represents the most significant and daunting assignment yet for
the England head coach and his promising regime.
Ready for action: Stuart Lancaster believes England are ready for the test that awaits in South Africa
Time and again during his caretaker stint in the Six Nations, Lancaster’s new, young side went into games against a backdrop of foreboding, only to emerge with reputations enhanced.
The trend was established at
Murrayfield and taken to another level with the victory in Paris and
demolition of Ireland at home. The challenge this afternoon is to
maintain it by defying history.
England have not won in this country for 12 years and their last seven encounters with the Springboks have ended in defeat. In all, the national team have played 10 Tests in Durban against South Africa and won three. This is a harsh, unforgiving place for visiting sides.
Part of the issue is the aura that surrounds the Springboks, based on their physicality and ferocity. Lancaster suggested that England intend to be alert to the danger, without being awestruck or afraid.
‘We want to be in a position, in terms of our mental preparation, where we are confident but aware of the challenge coming our way,’ he said. ‘We’ve shown the players examples of South Africa at their best and, when they’re at their best, they are formidable but there’s a balance. You want to give the players confidence but make sure it doesn’t become over-confidence. Equally, you don’t want to make them so anxious that there is a fear of failure.
‘It’s a fine line and that mental aspect
is a big part of our preparation. You can feel the weight of
expectation and pressure. It is a bit like the calm before the storm.
Track record suggests this is one of the toughest challenges to take
The local agenda this week has been dominated by regional rivalries and
concern that South Africa will be disadvantaged by the short turn-around
between Super 15 derbies and the start of a tricky Test series.
Final preparations: Geoff Parling charges upfield during the England training session
England are seen in these parts as a menacing proposition as they have
had more time together to prepare and are further along the evolutionary
But that perception overlooks the fact there are two debutants in the
visiting pack, prop Joe Marler and flanker Tom Johnson. In fact, there
is a staggering experience gulf between the host nation and the Red Rose
XV, who have just 187 caps between them.
Yet, in certain ways, there are similarities between the teams. Both are
rebuilding after poor World Cup campaigns and both are likely to lean
heavily on forward clout and a territorial, kicking game so this is
destined to be a blood-and-thunder showdown with plenty of intrigue in
the set piece and aerial exchanges.
Lancaster’s decision to move Ben Foden to the wing and promote Mike Brown at 15 may ultimately look like a shrewd move.
England are at the end of a long, gruelling season and have players
missing, such as Tom Croft, Tom Wood and Courtney Lawes, but South
Africa are depleted, too. In the past, these tours have felt like a
half-hearted after-thought following an arduous season, but not this
With three Tests and two midweek games, this has been pinpointed
as a priority expedition.
Calm before storm: Chris Robshaw passes the ball during training
Forwards coach Graham Rowntree said: ‘Too often in recent times, in
these tours at the end of a long season, we’ve used every excuse going.
If we want to be the squad we think we can be, we’ve got to start
winning these big games. Our season finishes on June 23 — this is a
continuation of our season.’
There is a wider issue at stake, for all four home nations. With the
Lions touring Australia next summer, this would be the ideal time to
start reversing the trend of southern dominance — building on the lead
set by Scotland, who claimed a shock win over the Wallabies on Tuesday.
Wales have a glorious chance to beat the same opponents today and
England have cause for hope, although Ireland’s prospects against New
Zealand are less positive.
However, the sense of a common cause will not register in England’s
immediate thinking. Whatever the official, one-game-at-a-time mantra,
the management will be aware this Test — at sea level against untried
and potentially under-cooked opposition — is a prime opportunity to
lower the colours of the Rainbow Nation.
While the Springboks start as favourites and a home win by a handful of
points is the most logical outcome, Lancaster’s team have made a mockery
of pessimistic predictions before. To do so again would be their
finest feat yet.