Richard O'Hagan previews England's forthcoming tour of South Africa and believes Stuart Lancaster's side should be backed to take a series lead when the two sides meet on June 9th.
"Taking these factors into consideration, the opening match on June 9th definitely represents England's best chance of a win in this series, so back them to take a series lead at odds of 2.1411/10"
Last night 42 rugby players, plus assorted coaches, backroom staff and medics, left England for a South African tour like no other. Often, when sides tour the southern hemisphere, there is hope. Sometimes, that hope is blind, an expectation of victory where the gulf between the two sides is as wide as the oceans which separate them geographically. On other occasions there is simply too much fatalism, where avoiding a thrashing is greeted as some kind of moral victory.
This tour is nothing like that. It is hard to recall a time, certainly within the last two decades, when an England side went abroad with so little fanfare. It is as if every fan, every pundit, is holding their breath, watching, waiting. It is the collective hush before the gladiators enter the arena, before they reach the proving ground. And it is entirely right that it should be so, for this is a team which, like no other before it, needs to prove itself.
England are barely six months from the most disappointing World Cup campaign in recent times, yet they are also barely three from the most surprising Six Nations. As interim coach, Stuart Lancaster seemed to foster a new self belief in those players who remained from the parlous times in New Zealand. At the same time, new players were seamlessly integrated into the side. Now that he has the job full-time, Lancaster needs to show that he can engender the same spirit when the players are together for much longer in a foreign country. Further dwarf-throwing tales will not be tolerated, on any level.
He will have to do so without his preferred backs coach (and de facto second in command) Andy Farrell, who declined to take on the job permanently. He will do so without certain key players such as Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood and, after he was injured in last weekend's game against the Barbarians, Matt Stevens (though it will at least stop him playing on the wrong side of the scrum). Behind the scrum he may be without Toby Flood following yet another injury.
With every injury, of course, comes an opportunity. With three matches back to back against one of the most bruising sides in the world, on some of the hardest pitches in the world, there will be chances for some exciting youngsters to stake their claims. For the likes of Harlequins' Joe Marler and the Wasps duo of Joe Launchberry and Christian Wade this tour seems to have come at an ideal moment, will all three showing prime form at the end of a long season. There will also be chances for stalwart fringe players to show what they can do, such as Leicester's Thomas Waldrom and Anthony Allen. And for some, it really may be a trip to the last chance bar.
In many eyes Manu Tuilagi is lucky to be on the plane at all, having barely avoided suspension after a tip tackle in the Aviva Premiership final at the weekend. After his third disciplinary brush in twelve months the 21 year old needs to start proving that he is something other than (frankly) a very talented idiot. Ironically, the tackle in question was on Danny Care, who himself returns to the side after being dropped for the Six Nations following two alcohol-related arrests in a matter of weeks. Care is another who always appears to be just one twitch away from doing something stupid, but his talents as a scrum half have rarely been in doubt and he has every chance of pushing his way past Ben Youngs and Lee Dickson into the number nine jersey. If only England could be sure that he won't then do something dumb.
Fortunately for England, they catch South Africa at their own time of transition. Their World Cup was, by their standards, every bit as disappointing as England's was. They have a new coach and whoever captains them in this series - probably scrum half Fourie du Preez - will know his job is, at least for the moment, only a temporary one. They are likely to be missing their two dynamic flankers, Schalk Burger and Juan Smith, whilst their lack of a credible fly half is no less likely to hamper them now than it did at the end of 2011.
The biggest question for England, though, will be whether the patient, grinding, style of rugby which they developed during the Six Nations will work on the harder, faster pitches of the high veldt. In new backs coach Mike Catt they at least have someone with a lot of experience of South African conditions, but you can't help but feel that they will need to be a lot sharper on the ball if they are to succeed. On the other hand, South Africa have not played an international this year and may well take a little time to gel together.
Taking these factors into consideration, the opening match on June 9th definitely represents England's best chance of a win in this series, so back them to take a series lead at odds of 2.1411/10
It will be a close game, though, so backing a win by less than 12.5 points in the Winning Margin market should also be considered and bear in mind that England often have problems with penalties in the southern hemisphere, usually caused by not understanding the way the region's referees interpret the laws, so expect the first scoring play of the game to be a penalty for the home side.