Agony can lead to ecstasy
June 25, 2012
England's Manu Tuilagi takes the attack to South Africa during their clash in Port Elizabeth © Getty Images
England may not have been able to end their gruelling tour of South African on a winning note with victory in Port Elizabeth but the heartache of that missed opportunity may well inspire greater things from this side.
A lot of comparisons have been made between this tour and England's trip to South Africa in 2000 and the clear frustration on the faces of Stuart Lancaster and his players following their latest brave showing reminded me again of our visit to the country 12 years ago.
It was when we really began to generate momentum on a run that would end with World Cup glory and one of the major driving forces behind it was the agony many of the squad had suffered in the years leading up to that tour. There had been the defeat to Wales at Wembley in 1999 and the loss to Scotland in the Grand Slam decider in 2000 and those players, the likes of Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Neil Back and Richard Hill had simply had enough.
The result was a narrow defeat in Pretoria, where we only lost because referee Mark Lawrence failed to award a penalty try when Tim Stimpson was tackled off the ball, and a pivotal victory in Bloemfontein the following week. They were crucial building blocks and would lead to victories over Australia and New Zealand on their own patch and all those successes, orchestrated by Clive Woodward, were fuelled by the fact that the players said enough is enough in terms of losing tight games. And who says this England squad can't do the same?
The performance in Port Elizabeth was a huge step in the right direction. Once again we showed that we can hold our own and, perhaps just as importantly, that we can learn from our mistakes - and quickly.
England were switched on from the start when previously they have struggled to get going and the defence was also much better as they fronted up from the first whistle. The execution was also impressive with a greater spark and enthusiasm in attack leading to a try for Danny Care. Admittedly, there were mistakes but we were able to keep the ball and apply pressure with Manu Tuilagi smashing into the Springboks' midfield at every opportunity. It was simple, effective rugby played with confidence. It might not have been the prettiest rugby you have ever seen but they can take great credit from the game and the tour.
People forget that there were so many kids out there with the 10, 12 and 13 all under 21 years of age at one point on Saturday afternoon. Their heads could have easily dropped after going 2-0 down in the series and having been battered for the best part of the previous 12 months. But instead they raised their game in their last outing of the season safe in the knowledge there would be no tomorrow. That attitude was great and the boys deserve their holiday perhaps none more than Dan Cole who has impressed me a lot and he is almost getting to the stage where he is the first name on the team sheet. He has shown he can compete at this level and do plenty of work around the park and, along with Tuilagi and Tom Johnson, shone brightest on this tour.
But there remains a lot of work to be done as it is clear that the southern hemisphere sides are more advanced than their northern counterparts. Question marks remain about the make-up of Stuart Lancaster's support staff and I for one am not sure Mike Catt has done quite enough to earn a permanent England role. Both he and Andy Farrell are still serving their coaching apprenticeship and while Catt has put down a marker in South Africa I expect his predecessor to return to the England ranks.
The end of a tour brings the usual capers and I imagine the new caps will have got a grilling. I remember my debut and having to run the gauntlet up and down the coach while getting slapped and filled in along the way.
Much like today, there was also a fair bit of singing involved - if that's what you call it. It was more like 'Britain's Got No Talent' where I was concerned. Others I could mention - Matt Stevens - love the sound of their own voice and to be fair he can sing. The rest of the front row union were not too happy because he made us look bad as he had a lot of talent. He could play the guitar, he could sing, he could do everything and loved entertaining the troops.
We loved it too and I remember dancing and singing around the changing room following our 2007 World Cup semi-final victory over France. The jury's still out on that performance as it is with England but they should accept a pat on the back but be wary they will be scrutinised come a tough autumn series when expectations will rise.
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