Preview: South Africa v England

25th May 2007, 12:03

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Ashwin Willemse: Only he makes Jonny Wilkinson look fortunate

Ashwin Willemse: Only he makes Jonny Wilkinson look fortunate

If your local club had 35 of its top players grounded by injuries or prior commitments, the end-of-season jolly across the border would undoubtedly be cancelled and the stragglers would decamp to the nearest pub, and rightly so. But those who do battle in the name of England do things differently.

If your local club had 35 of its top players grounded by injuries or prior commitments, the end-of-season jolly across the border would undoubtedly be cancelled and the stragglers would decamp to the nearest pub, and rightly so. But those who do battle in the name of England do things differently.

In ludicrous homage to Lord Cardigan's Light Brigade, Brian Ashton's motley crew of "part-timers, plumbers and decorators" are to face the might of South Africa - provider of the two Super 14 finalists - in Bloemfontein on Saturday.

The tourists will then have a week to lick their wounds before they do it all over again in Pretoria. Andrew Motion, Britain's current Poet Laureate, should prepare to dip his quill.

Say what you will about the dubious merits of these half-baked tours, but we'd wager you'll still tune in on Saturday. Don't feel bad about it, it's human nature - the rubber-necker in all of us will be craning for a view of the jack-knifed chariot on the plains of the Vrystaat.

Yes, these mismatches do tend to devalue Test rugby, but Saturday's game does actually carry a small measure of importance.

England's last appointment in South Africa, way back at the turn of the century, is widely regarded as the point at which these two sides parted in the yellow wood.

After losing the first Test in Pretoria, England managed to square the series with a famous 27-22 victory in Bloemfontein, with all 27 of the visitors' points supplied by Jonny Wilkinson.

That result set England on the path to greatness. They went on to win 39 of their next 42 Tests, a tally that included a clean sweep at the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

South Africa, for their part, went on to develop a psychological block when it came to the English - they lost the next seven encounters, including that crucial Rugby World Cup meeting in Western Australia.

Jake White's troops finally broke their duck at Twickenham in November when they squared a two-Test series with a well-taken 25-14 win in the second meeting.

The Boks have now come full circle, they are back in Bloemfontein for a game against the English and have the chance to exorcise their demons once and for all and emphatically.

Not only that, a handsome series win over England will allow the South Africans to take a psychological advantage to Paris where the two sides met in the crunch Pool A clash of the forthcoming Rugby World Cup.

It is for this reason that White has chosen to signal the beginning of South Africa's international season not with a starter's pistol but with a bazooka.

Whilst England's 20-odd Heineken Cup finalists get to put their feet up this Saturday, South Africa's contingent of Bulls and Sharks go straight from the cauldron of the Super 14 Final to the fires of Test rugby.

White wouldn't have it any other way. He has been planning for France 2007 ever since he assumed the green and gold reins in 2004 and has remained fiercely loyal to the men who delivered the Tri-Nations title in that very year.

Players from outside White's inner circle have raised their hands to the heavens on occasions too numerous to mention, but the Bok boss is of the belief that proven class always trumps fleeting form.

To that end, the no-nonsense side that faces England at Vodacom Park on Saturday is nothing if not experienced.

White celebrates equalling Nick Mallett's record of 38 Test matches as head coach by selecting a XV that boasts a total of 418 caps.

John Smit will lead his country for a record 39th time and will be playing in his 43rd consecutive Test match (also a record). He will also improve on his record of 61 Tests as a hooker.

Percy Montgomery - 654 points in Tests and counting - will improve his record 66 Tests at full-back; he has 80 caps in total.

Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha will improve the record they shared with Mark Andrews and Krynauw Otto with their 26th Test match as a lock pairing.

By contrast, the England XV chasing a first away win in 15 months can only muster 198 caps between them. Wilkinson, Jason Robinson and Mark Regan account for 131 of those - the other 12 players share the remaining 67 caps.

That puny tally is significantly improved by the late inclusion of Iain Balshaw (29 caps) who surely rates as the jammiest man to have ever laced a boot. After being handed a ticket to South Africa after Ben Cohen opted out of the odyssey, the mercurial Gloucester star sneaked into the XV after David Strettle was laid low by illness.

Strettle is not the only English patient - Wilkinson, Andy Farrell and James Simpson-Daniel have also partaken in extra-curricular shuttle-runs to the toilets and back, but the news on Friday is that Wilko and Farrell remain solidly in the line-up for now.

One suspects the hand of 'Suzie' in all of this. She being the shadowy assassin who, according to New Zealand lore, nobbled the All Blacks on the eve of the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final.

But why waste good salmonella on a bunch of no-hopers? Besides, England doctor Simon Kemp has stressed that the virus is airborne and not caught from food. (Perhaps Dr Kemp should check Balshaw's washbag for incriminating aerosols.)

Yet despite the desperate odds, the English tourists are refusing to let their heads drop, never mind anything else. It could be the stiff upper-lip routine, or it could be that the Boks have far more to lose.

The South Africa media has made a great deal of the tourists' shortcomings - the "part-timers, plumbers and decorators" jibe comes courtesy of one of the local Sunday papers - and nothing less than a winning margin of around 40 to 50 points will cloy the local rugby public's newly-acquired taste for all-out success.

In that respect, England could lose by 20-odd points and still deny the Boks the right to flaunt the psychological advantage. Make no mistake, keeping the cream of South African rugby even partially honest will be a definite moral victory for a rag-tag bunch of old soldiers and young bucks.

Furthermore, England's overwhelming anonymity could turn out to be their one strength. Even the most clued-up Bok would be hard pressed to pick Mike Brown out of a police line-up, whereas every English tourist will be acutely aware of which way Brian Habana likes to step and when and why.

But we are picking at straws. The top dogs of South African rugby simply crave pressure, just witness the Bulls' recent encounter with the Reds. Needing to score at least 72 points to ensure a home semi-final, the eventual champions bagged a 92-3 victory.

Indeed, giving England a 30-point head-start is unlikely to make one iota of difference to Saturday's result.

Bloemfontein is known as 'the city of roses', but the red English variety will surely wither and die here on Saturday. The tourists best hope is that they inflict one or two thorn-wounds that will mutate into festering clumps of doubt ahead of that reunion in Paris.