Jonny who?

One England victory doesn't make a rugby summer

Will anybody out there disagree with me when I say that England's rugby World Cup victory four years ago was a fluke, and that our chances of retaining the trophy in September are minimal? I wouldn't dare say such a thing if I were not thousands of miles away from England, and I hope I will have to eat my hat.

But it would be naive to let the 62-5 thrashing of Wales's second string at Twickenham on Saturday create delusions of grandeur. Let us not forget that England have lost 12 of their previous 16 Tests. A win against a Welsh first string might have been instructive. It might have been held up as a preview of how an imaginative England might counter any of the southern hemisphere teams that now dominate the sport, particularly the team of teams, the All Blacks, who run even better than they arm-wrestle.

Part of what made England great four years ago was the stupendous Jonny Wilkinson at his peak. Despite the 17 points he kicked against the Welsh, Wilkinson is past his best. The England head coach, Brian Ashton, who must cut ten players by 14 August to make his final World Cup 30, would kill for someone of the stature of the legendary Martin Johnson, who captained four years ago and has, alas, retired.

Here in South Africa - where I am surrounded by rugby fanatics in a sleepy little village in the Karoo - no one thinks that England have a hope of withstanding their team's sheer brute force. You may be thinking I have fallen into bad company, into a den of Springbok fans. But these South Africans know their rugby inside out. I watched a match at the local bar with, among others, the country's greatest prima ballerina. She could have been a referee.

Rugby is a religion, if not the religion in South Africa. For a boy - white, coloured, Xhosa, but probably not Zulu - becoming a Springbok is a dream on a par with meeting the virgins in paradise. Better, actually, because you don't have to die to attain it. Which is why it is such a shock that Pierre Spies, a big, heavy man who runs like a cheetah, has had to withdraw from this year's World Cup squad, after coughing up blood in training.

Spies, who outran several backs to score a try in the second Test against England, is taking blood thinners and banned from contact sport for at least six months, after scans at the end of last month showed blood clots on both lungs. He has now realised that he has the rare blood ailment which killed his father. With this thrombolytic condition, a tackle - or even a hard slap - could cause a deadly blood clot.

The Springboks' coach, Jake White, said: "Pierre is one of those unique players who can turn a game on its head with a spectacular try from 60 metres out." Just the sort of player who is priceless at a World Cup.

Meanwhile, quite another issue is making tempers flare here. A third of the Springboks' World Cup squad have signed, or are about to sign, with top-flight European clubs. They are seeking to resist the recent pronouncement that overseas-based players will be barred from Springbok selection from 2008. Contract talks started back in November; it is too late to change the ground rules, the players say.

Add to that the just-announced target - not a quota, the South African rugby union president insists - of at least seven players of colour in next year's Springbok XV, the squad aiming for the 2011 World Cup, and some say it's a conspiracy. Others might call it a long-overdue "transformation".

Adrianne Blue is a senior lecturer in international journalism at City University and the author of many books on sport.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix