Springbok challenge marks start of World Cup build-up
Graham Rowntree insists England will get stuck in to South Africa, says Paul Rees
South Africa have come to be regarded as the weakest of the old Tri Nations countries, a few notches below the All Blacks, if closer to Australia and a side more like the Europeans in terms of style, organised and functional, but England, who open their three-Test series against the Springboks in Durban on Saturday, have suffered against them the most in recent years.
Since England defeated South Africa by two points at Twickenham in 2006, they have lost seven successive games against South Africa, four by margins of 33 points or more with an average score of 36-11 to the Springboks. One week after running Australia around Twickenham in the autumn of 2010, the men in white were bashed by the Boks in a brutal encounter.
South Africa have lost some seasoned forwards since last year's World Cup -- John Smit, Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield, men who strode a relentlessly forward march -- and they will be without the injured Schalk Burger, Andries Bekker and Juan Smith, but their new coach, Heyneke Meyer, who spent a few months in charge of Leicester in 2008, has promised that a different management team will not lead to a different approach.
"We know it will be physical," Graham Rowntree, the England forwards coach, says. "It always is against South Africa, but we have a group of players who want to be challenged and they will get stuck in. We are not going into the series with any trepidation. We are out there to take them on. We are good to go."
It will be England's first international since Stuart Lancaster was appointed head coach, having assumed the role in an interim capacity during the Six Nations. He and his management team of Rowntree and Andy Farrell helped restore a sense of pride after the traumas of last year's World Cup campaign.
"I am very grateful to be here," says Rowntree, the only coach who survived the fallout from the World Cup. "Having seen what happened before, and I am not going to talk about the recent past any more because it has been so well documented, I feel a real obligation to get this group of players to where they should be. I am more excited now about England than I ever have been. I am very confident that the squad will not let happen what occurred in New Zealand."
Mike Catt has taken over from Farrell as backs coach for now and there will be a change of emphasis from the Six Nations when England, looking to rehabilitate themselves, focused on defence and being hard to beat. They quickly forged a team spirit that meant they were able to come from behind to win in Scotland and Italy, and their only defeat was at home to Grand Slam winners, Wales.
"We have got to take it to the next level after the Six Nations," says Rowntree. "There were areas where we progressed nicely, but we have to kick on again. There are a few more levels inside us in every aspect of the game. Mike Catt will bring a lot more to us and, with the right attitude, we will get there. This tour is not all about the lads getting experience and losing. We want to see progression: get the details right and you start to get the wins against the big southern hemisphere teams, as England did well before 2003. We want to play the rugby that was produced in the Premiership final.
"You have to keep the opposition defending. Harlequins have been doing that all year. I have been very impressed with them and where they have progressed as a club this season is that they have won tight games and in an ugly manner. They have improved in the set-pieces and at the breakdown, and they play an offloading game. Chris Robshaw has grown as a player and as a leader. A lot has happened for him this year and he has taken it in his stride. His stats in the Six Nations were ridiculous when it came to his tackling, his carrying and his involvement in games. He is selfless. It is good to see him getting the recognition he deserves."
Lancaster was appointed ahead of Nick Mallett, the former South Africa and Italy coach who will be an interested spectator this month. He has advised the Springboks to forget their recent record in the series and believes the first Test will be key in deciding the outcome of the three-match rubber.
"Lancaster has opted for a younger squad because the older players let them down," Mallett says. "Their set-pieces are good, their kicking game is impressive and Chris Robshaw has instilled a feelgood factor. With the South African players going hammer and tongs in the Super 15 this weekend, a lot of the first Test will have to be played on passion and heart: there is not enough time for detailed game plans."
England have taken 42 players on a tour that includes two midweek matches, against different South African Barbarians sides.
Rowntree missed out on the 2003 World Cup and his aim now is to be involved when England host the 2015 tournament.
"Ideally, we will be peaking then," he says. "The depth is greater than it was in 2003 and we are developing young players more quickly. We have some great talent coming through between the ages of 18 and 20. In the next three years we have to work out when to bring them through. The future is bright."
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