Jeff Probyn: Why do we always have this hype about brutality?

Chris RobshawAs the England players are recovering from the first of their three Tests they might well be wondering what all the fuss was about in terms of the expected physicality and brutality of their South African counterparts.
With each team talking up the opposition, it seems to me that there is an unwritten agreement between the players to exaggerate the extent of each others prowess on the rugby field.
I always find it slightly amusing that each time we are approaching a game against a Southern Hemisphere nation there are always articles proclaiming the ferocity of the opposition as if they are some kind of supermen.
While there is no doubting the physical confrontations that took place in yesterday’s games as each of the teams try to impose themselves on the opposition, I think that, in all honesty, they are probably no greater than those they will face in their local international competitions – the
Six Nations and the new four-team Rugby Championship.
There was also the usual over-hyping of the personal confrontations like those between the front rows and particularly that between Dan Cole and Tendai (The Beast) Mtawarira, this is just because Mtawarira gave Phil Vickery a hard time in a previous game – the Lions’ first Test in 2009.
Although Phil being the great player that he was, it has to be said that actually he was not the greatest of technical scrummagers and was caught by The Beast’s turn and drive style whereupon he would engage the scrum, move slightly wide and then turn into the side of Vickery driving in and up, thereby putting Phil under an enormous pressure.
Despite Phil’s discomfort the Lions management did not substitute him for some time but when they brought on Adam Jones he completely turned the tables on The Beast and by the third Test Phil had been given the chance to study Mtawarira and develop a counter strategy and had no problems.
But every time England play South Africa the papers trot out that first Test.
All props are different with varied styles, techniques and physiques so someone who gives one player a problem may well be like child’s play to another – so why there is this assumption that Dan Cole would have a problem dealing with the Beast is beyond me.
Cole and forwards coach Rowntree would have seen far more videos of how Mtawarira plays than Vickery and would have worked out a strategy to beat him.
As one of a consistently improving England front row Cole is a very quick learner and has proved his ability to learn even during the game. The front row, in fact, is one area where the teams will be evenly matched.
Much of the hype promulgated before Tests with the Southern Hemisphere teams is usually bragging about how good the SANZA players are and how hard it is going to be for our boys to compete.
One of my last representative games was against a young New Zealander, Craig Dowd, who had given the Lions props in ’93 a torrid time, so much so that the Lions management had to ask Jason Leonard to move from loosehead to tight in an attempt to stabilise the scrum, which he did but could not stop the Lions losing the series.
New Zealand repaid the Lions trip with a Northern Hemisphere tour starting with a game against London Division and named young Dowd in the match side, creating many headlines of how the mighty All Black pack with Dowd, Sean Fitzpatrick and Olo Brown would destroy the London Division scrum.
Before the game Jason (having moved back to loosehead) and Brian Moore spent time telling me how Dowd played and how he attacked your shoulder to force you wide in an attempt to split the front row but to be perfectly honest, as probably the most technically skilled prop of the time I was not unduly bothered about it.
At the first scrum Dowd tried the same technique that had served him so well against the Lions but I changed my angle at the scrum passing all the pressure through his hooker Fitzpatrick, causing Fitzpatrick a bit of pain.
At the end of the game Fitzpatrick joined us at the bar (like all good front row forwards) to discuss the day’s game and asked me why Dowd had failed to stop me pressuring him during the game and why he had been almost ineffectual to such a degree that Moore had started sledging Fitzpatrick in every scrum.
I explained that although he was a very strong prop, Dowd was not good at readjusting his position and if I moved slightly before we engaged he would just slide up the side of our scrum splitting off Fitzpatrick leaving him to take all the pressure on his left shoulder.
After that tour Dowd was left out of the New Zealand squads for 12 months and Richard Loe was brought back to allow Dowd time to get more experience.
Cole and his fellow forwards have already had the experience of playing against Mtawarira and his team-mates.
They are more than aware of the threat they offer but if they can keep focused on the job in hand and contain the might of the Springboks pack the series could be ours.
Congratulations must go to Scotland for beating a team ranked 10 places above them in the IRB world rankings.
Such an achievement says volumes for the belief that Andy Robinson has built in his squad and the victory by this season’s Six Nations wooden spoon winners has set a challenge for all the other Northern Hemisphere countries to live up to.

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