England in SA
England brace for hostile SA
Johannesburg - Having rebuilt England's tarnished image following a calamitous World Cup, coach Stuart Lancaster and captain Chris Robshaw know success in South Africa depends on much more than being good ambassadors.
Although they both recognise the importance of representing England well off the field - especially after the infamous ill-disciplined antics in New Zealand last year - the young team's rugby progress under their new leaders will be scrutinised and heavily tested in three matches against the Springboks.
Thursday's low-key arrival for Lancaster's 42-man squad, in which the players walked through Johannesburg's OR Tambo airport largely unnoticed, probably suits a group still new to touring.
Almost all of them have never played in South Africa, save for a handful who came with the British and Irish Lions in 2009, Lancaster noted. Robshaw said it is his first visit to the country at all. He's not alone.
What the English tourists are familiar with is South Africa's reputation for being notoriously intimidating for away teams. Robshaw called them "hostile," but it is also exciting.
"We want to really test ourselves and there's no better place to do that," said Robshaw, dressed casually in an England training top and shorts. "You ask players around the world where's one of the toughest places to play, and they say South Africa in South Africa.
"We're under no illusions how hard that challenge is going to be, but it's one that everyone is looking forward to and getting stuck into."
England, under the honest, hardworking and now respected leadership of Lancaster and Robshaw, reconnected to a disillusioned English public with a promising Six Nations display this year. Lancaster's youthful team finished second and won away in Scotland, Italy and France, making a rapid resurgence after disappointing at the World Cup - on and off the field.
That secured Lancaster the permanent role as head coach, the Rugby Football Union buying in to his policy of discarding aging and possibly comfortable players with the young, hardworking and hungry.
His biggest test, he said in Johannesburg, was to balance winning "here and now" with developing a team to win it's the 2015 World Cup in England.
"It's promising what we achieved (in the Six Nations)," Lancaster said. "It's important we build on that momentum now and take it through to this tour.
"It's a brilliant test for us to come here to South Africa and have three Tests against South Africa. It allows us to bring a wider group, check our depth and also see where we are on the world stage ... It will be a great benchmark."
The coach, a renowned disciplinarian, said he wanted to instil a "Lions-like" ethic in his touring squad, a testament to the togetherness and team spirit of the British and Irish Lions teams.
He also welcomed the return of traditional tours and extended series as "a great idea" and "definitely the way we want to go."
Within that, Lancaster insisted the likely bruising midweek games in the rugby heartlands of Potchefstroom and Kimberley would be as important to the team's momentum in South Africa as the Tests in Durban, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth. England would "embrace it. You've got to embrace the culture of the nation," he said.
The squad had already done that, according to Robshaw, through three South African-born members of the party.
Backline coach and Port Elizabeth-born Mike Catt, lock Mouritz Botha and Durban-born centre Brad Barritt all had vital input ahead of the tour, Robshaw said. And not just about rugby.
"They've been great in the buildup," Robshaw said. "Brad gave us a talk and Mo (Botha) gave us a South African barbeque, or a braai, the other day. So they're getting us into the spirit of coming over here, they know what it's about over here."
Lancaster and his England team have also won praise in South Africa from a familiar rival.
Nick Mallett, the former Springboks coach who Lancaster beat to the England job, said this week the tourists had all the ingredients to surprise a South African team themselves in transition and adjusting to new mentor Heyneke Meyer.
Mallett warned that the feel-good factor surrounding England could instead turn the month-long series into "a long, hard tour" for the home team.
"The World Cup came and went," Lancaster said, "we made some changes, quite a lot of changes ... From the outset we were a new team coming together. The players are hugely excited."