England need to 'man-up' against the Boks
June 12, 2012
England took a battering against the Boks and need to turn the tables this weekend if they want to rescue the series © Getty Images
"You will not need your boots today," said Geech as we arrived for what we thought would be the first of many gruelling training sessions ahead of the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 1997. "Go and get suited and booted - we are going to the pub." Just one of many magical memories from an amazing tour.
It may sound a little dated to some now but such an approach may benefit an England squad short on tour experience as they look to bounce back from a bruising defeat at the hands of South Africa.
Saturday's game was always going to be an acid test for this 'new' England and sadly it is one they didn't pass. Despite showing plenty of spirit in defeat, the key to future success may be found over a pint or two but before we address that, let's look at their shortcomings in Durban.
Stuart Lancaster spoke about intensity, work-rate, tempo and winning the battle of the gain line but they failed in many of these areas. The work-rate was certainly there and it needed to be as a rampant South Africa ensured it was more of a tackling session for England. The tourists were on the back foot for much of the game and simply needed to man-up more. I am struggling to remember one dominant tackle which should be a big concern.
The Springboks are huge guys and the likes of Willem Alberts and Marcell Coetzee clearly love nothing better than running straight at defences. They are like trains. There is little or no footwork and their intent is to run straight over you. Wave after wave of pressure washed over England and it was almost men against boys at times. But you have to expect that to a certain extent against South Africa and work just as hard to outsmart them.
A poor kicking game did not help England's cause and just invited trouble but England showed real spirit, fight, guts, courage and bravery at the breakdown where debutant Tom Johnson and captain Chris Robshaw were outstanding. However, that was never going to be enough.
Crucially, England lacked creativity and a killer instinct in the backs. We held onto 10 lineouts but there was hardly any penetration and no strike moves which really surprised me. England have recruited someone in Mike Catt who was a very creative player in his day but a side in his charge failed repeatedly to make an impression.
The scrum was also a disaster area. England had eight scrums and lost five of them - an unacceptable stat in Test match rugby. You have got to win 100% of your own feed and disrupt at least 25% of the other side's ball. In contrast, South Africa won all seven of their scrums and they deserve plenty of credit for the way they battered England into submission with Brad Barritt and Mouritz Botha getting a little bit of extra treatment as South Africans.
The visitors were out-thought and out-fought and assistant coach Graham Rowntree and hooker Dylan Hartley in particular will be hurting. It will not make for pleasant viewing when they come to analyse it because they are aware better than most that the scrum is such an important platform because without it you will always struggle for momentum.
To be honest, aside from a bit of flair from the likes of Jonathan Joseph and Toby Flood, England offered very little to worry the Boks. They will not be scared going into this weekend's game so it is up to England to surprise them with a smarter game plan and steal back the initiative. Let's have Flood playing flat at No.10 and Joseph and Manu Tuilagi taking a few risks in midfield and then the cutting edge will come.
The mid-week match in Kimberley is the next opportunity to put down a marker and England must grab that chance with both hands and a handful of the guys have the chance to force their way into the Test reckoning. They need to get the tour up and running, because the tour could soon get away from England if they are not careful.
Adding to England's woes is the fact that game and the second Test will be at altitude. Talking from my own painful experience, it is like playing with just one lung or while having an asthma attack. Or just try playing when you've eaten too much. You just can't get enough air in your lungs that is a real issue as you need plenty of oxygen to play Test match rugby.
Mark Regan packs down between Jason Leonard and Graham Rowntree during the Lions memorable tour of South Africa in 1997 © PA Photos
Before you know it, you find yourself having to cheat which can lead to its own problems. But just as important combating altitude is the need to take time out from rugby to re-focus. I loved to go on tour. At times it may have been monotonous, a bit like Groundhog Day, but it is so important that you enjoy the experience and if that means going for a pint or two then so be it. It can be pretty intense living in each other's pockets and when you are on tour the other players are your family and it is vital that you get on.
You have got to keep spirits up and to be quite honest, if anyone was going to take someone else on tour it would have been me because I liked to have a bit of fun. As long as you do the hard work on the park, you can do what you like off it as far as I am concerned - within reason.
I always saw it as an important release away from the rugby, you are in a bubble and your mind needs to rest. In New Zealand, they went too far and let the coaches, themselves and England down. But I don't think they should just block players going out because that will just upset and unsettle the players and turn them into caged animals. You have got to go out and enjoy yourself, let off that steam, whether that's a few beers or piece of cake.
You don't want to look back on this experience and think it was a 'tour of hell' having had a shocker on and off the field. There are no better places to go and play rugby than South Africa and as long as you are responsible you can also be game for a laugh.
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