Alastair Hignell column: SA Tour important for Lancaster
NOW, as Brucie and Tess intone with irritating frequency on Strictly Come Dancing, is the moment of truth. But there's nothing repetitive about an England tour to South Africa – this is the first in five years and only the seventh since the two nations started playing each other in 1906 – and there's nothing contrived or manufactured about it, either.
England's newly-installed head coach Stuart Lancaster will face the sternest test of his coaching credentials. Compared to what lies in store for England – in a tour lasting barely four weeks, they play Tests in Durban, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, with midweek matches in Kimberley and Potchefstroom – the recent Six Nations' Championship is likely to seem like a gentle warm-up.
England's second place in that tournament – in which they were only beaten, and narrowly at that, by Grand Slam-winners Wales – was widely regarded as a decent achievement by Lancaster, his tyro management team and a young squad. Three Tests against a traditionally teak-tough opponent, in openly hostile stadiums, with World Cup ranking points at stake, will almost certainly sort out the men from the boys.
History is not on England's side. A team captained by John Pullin notched up a famous victory at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, in 1972, but since then no team has returned from the Republic with the series' spoils.
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True , the 1994 outfit, captained by Will Carling, won the first Test in Pretoria, only to be taken to the cleaners in Cape Town a week later, and, true, Martin Johnson led England to a thrilling victory in Bloemfontein in 2000, after a controversial first Test defeat in Pretoria. But reports of England's other matches in South Africa make for grim reading.
In 1984 and 2007, South Africa annihilated their visitors in two-Test series. On the first occasion, England failed to reach double figures in either Test. On the latter, the Boks racked up a half-century on each occasion with patronising ease. In between, there was a one-off tacked on to the back-end of the notorious 1998 Tour to Hell, when England failed to score a point and would have conceded many more than 18 had the storm-lashed Cape Town pitch not been reduced to a morass.
Nor are circumstances in Lancaster's favour. By their nature, tours to the southern hemisphere occur at the end of a long and punishing domestic season. Players are exhausted, mentally as well as physically.
Many give in to injuries during the inevitably frantic hunt for domestic honours. Leicester's Tom Croft, a key line-out forward, whose electrifying try against France in Paris was one of the highlights of England's Six Nations' campaign, has already been ruled out.
No 8 Ben Morgan, who burst so thrillingly on to the international scene during the spring, is anxiously awaiting the results of a scan on the torn hamstring he suffered last weekend.
The break-up of a coaching team that had, against all expectations, gelled so quickly and so effectively during the Six Nations won't have helped. Nor will the publicity surrounding the attempts to reconstitute it.
When Andy Farrell, for entirely understandable reasons, turned down the opportunity to remain as England's backs coach, the open wooing of World Cup-winning New Zealander Wayne Smith made his rejection seem even more of a slap in the face.
More importantly, it cast Mike Catt, the man who eventually got the job, as very much a third choice, and reduced the time available to Lancaster – who will almost certainly have to recruit another coach to cope with the midweek fixtures in South Africa – to finalise his plans.
At least, he can console himself with the thought that the Boks are also bedding in a new coach. Heyneke Meyer – briefly coach at Leicester a few seasons ago – succeeded Pieter de Villiers after the World Cup last autumn.
Because of the demands of the South African domestic season he has had little time with his players. His first international in charge – the first Test in Durban on June 9 – will be Lancaster's sixth.
Any hopes that Meyer's relative inexperience will give the Englishman the edge should be discounted immediately.
Meyer, before he came to Leicester, was in charge of the all-conquering Blue Bulls from Pretoria and South Africa has never been short of players who are hard, fast, skilful and, at times, brutally confrontational. Over three Tests – for the first time ever – the task facing Lancaster and England could hardly be tougher.