England look to rise above tired old debates against Springboks

Pressure will mount on Stuart Lancaster’s team if they fall to fifth defeat in row

A handsome new book entitled Behind the Rose has just been published, largely based on the testimonies of some of the 1,368 men who have represented England at rugby union since 1871. It is both a historical treasure trove and a timely reminder, on the eve of another huge Twickenham Test for Stuart Lancaster's team, that the modern generation are engaged in a different game.

The former grand slam-winning coach and lock forward Mike Davis, whose contribution to England's upturn around 1980 is often underestimated, recalls being unable to afford proper rugby boots when he made his Test debut in 1963, instead buying a pair of much cheaper football boots and dying them black. The Cornish prop Stack Stevens used to hitch lifts up to training in the Midlands in lorries carrying cauliflowers.

Regular phenomenon

For much of the 1970s, winning with England was far from a regular phenomenon. It was the incomparable sporting all-rounder

Alastair Hignell


who summed it up best: “The attitude to sport then was that it was something you did on the way to something else.”

One aspect of English rugby, however, will forever be the same. Lose five games on the trot, regardless of the opposition, and people will start asking uncomfortable questions. Lose on successive weekends at Twickenham, such a daunting citadel during the best of times, and long-term ambitions tend to be overtaken by shorter-term imperatives. As Clive Woodward stresses in Behind the Rose, the future at elite level is shaped one week at a time: "I still think England international rugby is all about the next game. Your mindset as a coach should be: 'If I don't win, I am going to get fired.'"

With a six-year contract in his back pocket, such a cliff-edge scenario is not currently an issue for Lancaster or his lieutenants. There is still a whiff of danger, even so, about this afternoon’s collision with South Africa following last week’s 24-21 defeat to New Zealand. It was not so much that England lost, more their frustrating second-half regression just when they had hoped to catapult themselves to a new level.

Do something similar against a Springbok side cruising for a bruising after losing in Ireland and patience will begin to fray on all sides. Anyone intending to be a World Cup starter cannot afford to underwhelm now.

Re-establishing some momentum has certainly been the no-nonsense message of the forwards' coach Graham Rowntree. "Of course there's got to be a backlash after a fourth defeat," he said. "We've got to beat these teams at Twickenham and we'll go in all guns blazing to do that. The fact we've not beaten them for years [since 2006] is almost irrelevant. We've just got to win this next game."

Drier conditions

In slightly drier conditions South Africa should pose rather more of an attacking threat than they did in Dublin, another reason for England to target their new half-back pairing of

Cobus Reinach


Pat Lambie

. The good news is that, in the first half against New Zealand, England did plenty of things well and should have been comfortably ahead of the world’s number one side. This time they hope ball-carriers such as

Courtney Lawes


Billy Vunipola

will give the Springbok forwards a dose of their own physicality and make it easier for their side’s exceptionally quick wingers to get into the game.

It is not the day, either way, for Danny Care to rest easy on the occasion of his 50th cap.

“It will come at a time when the learning needs to stop and we need to get results,” he said. “I think that we have shown in patches just how good we are but we need to turn that into 80-minute performances.

“Like Stuart said, we need an extra 10 per cent from everyone, maybe 20 per cent. In the second half against New Zealand, execution-wise, a couple of kicks weren’t my best. As half-backs, our job is to lead the team around the field and manage things. I made a couple of mistakes there and, ultimately, that cost us a bit.”

Crowd behaviour

It is time, in short, for England to rise above this week’s debates about television match officials, big screen replays, hakas, concussion protocols and crowd behaviour. Brain will be required as much as brawn, with aimless kicking to Willie le Roux definitely not to be recommended. The last time England lost five matches or more in a row was eight years ago; within a year they were facing Australia in a World Cup final.

History could yet be repeated but only if Lancaster’s players get a grip and start winning close contests against leading sides.

While South Africa will be equally motivated, this is a hunger game England dare not lose. Guardian Service