White confident ahead of England match

South Africa and England have quite a Rugby World Cup history and their clash at the Stade de France on Friday promises to be yet another enthralling chapter.

It was here eight years ago that the Springboks—then the defending champions—ended England hopes of landing the William Webb Ellis trophy and ridiculed Clive Woodward’s statement of “judge me on the World Cup”.

Ironically, Woodward was four years off his prediction as they took the title in 2003 and along the way swept aside a mediocre South African outfit in the group stages.

This time round, though, the tables look to have been turned as the Springboks, under the shrewd auspices of Jake White, enter the match in high spirits while England look to be a rather tattered and battered outfit.

This was reflected in their opening matches as England stumbled to a 28-10 win over the part-timers of the United States while the Springboks got better and better against a tiring Samoan side to prevail 59-7.

However, White, entering his 48th Test in charge and having landed the 2004 Tri Nations, is wary of discounting the threat that England will pose, even given their problems at flyhalf—with both specialist kickers Jonny Wilkinson and Olly Barkley out—and having lost captain Phil Vickery to suspension.

“I don’t want to sound like a stuck record but in 2003 there was no way we could beat them,” said White, who has his own worry after star back-row forward Schalk Burger was suspended for four matches, which was subsequently reduced to two.

“England had smashed everyone prior to the World Cup and their selection process would have taken five minutes and a cup of coffee.

“We arrived with off-the-field shenanigans [preparing at a boot camp under then-coach Rudolf Straeuli] and Victor [Matfield] was one of the most experienced players with around 17 caps.

“However, now it is us who have had this group together for quite a while and this England XV have never really played together—of course several of the players have done in England sides but not as a unit.

“In rugby you have to be used to playing with each other.

“It won’t be easy but we are like England were in 2003.”

South Africa, though, looked like they have far too much firepower for England in the way they dismantled the Samoans, with winger Bryan Habana and the likely centre partnership of Jaque Fourie and Francois Steyn, along with the evergreen fullback Percy Montgomery, looking world class.

As for England’s beleaguered coach Brian Ashton, he could be forgiven for thinking he had walked under several ladders on the way over to France such have been his injury woes.

Such are his depleted resources that the veteran former Ireland and Bath handler has risked all by selecting former Great Britain rugby league captain Andy Farrell at flyhalf in preference to 35-year-old South Africa-born Mike Catt, who is in the centre.

However, the fact he has only played one game at flyhalf since he switched codes does not faze the 32-year-old.

“The occasion makes no difference,” Farrell said. “You can only do your best. If you kick it, you’re a hero.
If you miss, you’re a villain.”

Former England flyhalf Rob Andrew, now the Rugby Football Union’s elite rugby director, said that despite the dreadful run-up to the match, England could still pull off a surprise.

“We’ve got the captain out suspended, we’ve got our two first-choice goal kickers out injured and we’re playing probably the form side in the tournament after week one,” said Andrew.

“Clearly it’s a massive ask, but teams can produce an extraordinary performance as we saw in the opening game [when Argentina beat hosts France].”—AFP

Pirate Irwin

Pirate Irwin

Pirate Irwin is a journalist with Agence France Presse , who has been based in Paris for 16 years having initially arrived for just a six month summer stay. Born in Ireland in 1965 and educated at Eton and Institute for Foreign Students in Tours after missing out on University by a large margin. His first name is a gift from his grandfather inspired by Radio Caroline but not appreciated by a Roman Catholic priest at christening.  Read more from Pirate Irwin

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