Winning start could spark something special
May 31, 2012
England coach Stuart Lancaster arrives in South Africa ahead of his side's three-Test, five-match tour © PA Photos
The dust may have settled on the Premiership season but there is no respite for England's leading players with a gruelling tour of South Africa set to provide a stern test for coach Stuart Lancaster and his players.
Harlequins and Leicester served up something special at Twickenham last weekend - with Quins claiming a deserved victory - and given the performances of some of key personnel, it could serve as a springboard to something even better against the Springboks.
I still don't think there is an awful lot of pressure on Lancaster which is a good thing as he looks to build on the positives of the Six Nations. With the Euros set to kick off a lot of the newspaper editors will be more worried about what the football team are doing rather than the rugby team - even given England's recent headline-grabbing exploits in New Zealand.
Time is still on Lancaster's side and most people realise the enormity of the task awaiting them. As a result there is not a great deal of pressure for them to dominate the series but that is not to say they will go there expecting to be playing for scraps. One Test victory would be seen as a positive result but they will obviously be aiming for more than that. It's an incredibly difficult place to tour but what they have got going for them is the fact that the first Test is at sea-level in Durban, as opposed to at altitude, and the Springboks will have only come together seven days before the game.
If England can win that first Test then suddenly the dynamic of the whole tour changes and the pressure is firmly on South Africa. When you are under such pressure then you play a different style of rugby, you look to minimise mistakes rather than dominate the game. That is why that first game is crucial - if England can win that one then who knows what might happen. The squad will no doubt benefit from the touring experience no matter the results but they must remain competitive throughout because if they end up coming home with their tails between their legs then it will knock their confidence and undo so much of the good work they have done in recent months.
Discipline will be key to a successful tour both on and off the field. The coaches must ensure the players are prepared for the physical onslaught that they will be treated to because you can't afford to be soft in South Africa. They have got to make sure that they are not bullied and looking at the squad I think they will be OK. I was interested to see Mike Brown talk the other day about his last trip to South Africa in 2007 when he admits he was bullied but he has vowed that it is never going to happen again. That is a great attitude to have in a squad.
There's no doubt they will be a more formidable prospect with Manu Tuilagi in their ranks. He risked being ruled out of the tour with a reckless challenge on Danny Care during the Premiership final but I think we can be very quick to judge things by slow-mo. People think it is a lot easier to control a body in the air than it actually is and I don't think there was any malice in the tackle. But I honestly think he needs to adapt his tackle technique because if it happens again - especially in South Africa - he will not be as lucky with the judiciary.
Off the field, I can't see indiscipline being a major issue as England are going to be put under a microscope - but you can never guarantee it. Part of the touring experience is getting out and seeing the country and what it has to offer and it is important that aspect remains. A happy rugby player is one that has been given a chance to take their mind off the game - but don't expect any bungy-jumping.
England need to show they have moved on from the mistakes of their troubled World Cup campaign just as Care has bounced back from his own personal issues. Danny failed to learn how quickly the tide can turn against you. He's been silly and put himself in those situations but he is not a wild tearaway who is more concerned about what he is doing off the pitch. It's been a tough year for him and he has bounced back well but I think he was helped by the fact that Lancaster did not have many other options. He's paid his penance and how he needs to repay Lancaster.
I can't go without offering some comment on what appears to be the hot topic of the week - London Welsh's fight to be promoted to the Premiership. It appears they may have been treated a little harshly but I am more worried about the future of the club should they get their way and move to the Kassam Stadium. I'm not sure how many of their fans would travel from Richmond to Oxford and I would hate to see another fantastic club like London Welsh go the same way as Richmond and London Scottish because they couldn't balance Premiership survival with rising costs.
With London Irish and London Wasps both fighting for fans in the same area, I would just want to make sure the long-term health of the club was not being jeopardised by such a move.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN
The Scotland coach enters his first Six Nations with at least one familiar face to look to for inspiration - Joe Schmidt. He chats to Tom Hamilton
Italy coach Jacques Brunel spoke to ESPN ahead of his final season as Italy coach and tells of his desire to experiment and evolve
"There's no bull with me, I just tell it straight." Tom Hamilton talks to Warren Gatland in an exclusive interview
With the retirement of Adam Jones, Welsh rugby says goodbye to a great player and one of its biggest personalities too, writes Tom Hamilton