AS TEST arenas go, South Africa is as demanding, onerous and downright awkward as they come.
There are few more challenging places for players to display their footballing skills and nerve; it is a true ‘test’ in every sense of the word.
The same applies, though, for a coach and, so, as Stuart Lancaster prepares for his first tour in charge of England, he is fully aware of the baptism that awaits.
Durban, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth each hold their own various pitfalls for visiting teams with one common theme coursing throughout – the gnarled Springboks like to let opponents know they have been in a rigorous contest here come what may.
Hard grounds, dusty conditions, playing at real altitude and witnessing genuine partisan support are just some of the complexities of touring South Africa but Lancaster – the former schoolteacher – is already busily arranging for every eventuality.
Fortunately, he has not adopted the Sir Clive Woodward mantra of staffing for every eventuality, the mistake he made when a whole raft of assistants, technicians, analysts and various cohorts were assembled for the British Lions trip to New Zealand in 2005.
Simplicity can often be key and employing Mike Catt, the England World Cup winner of South African heritage, is a master stroke.
That is not just because of the former Bath star’s knowledge of the country and all its intricacies but also the potential panache he could bring to the Red Rose backs during his two-month contract.
Although slightly younger than the head coach, his experience of playing international rugby – Catt also featured when the British Lions historically won a first Test series in South Africa in 1997 – will offer Lancaster another valuable sounding board alongside Graham Rowntree, an assistant who has already proved his worth at last year’s World Cup and in this season’s Six Nations.
It was Lancaster’s impressive performance – both in terms of on the pitch and behind the scenes at Twickenham – during that tournament as interim coach which saw the ex-Leeds Carnegie chief handed the role on a permanent basis in March.
He clearly showed he has the wherewithal to handle elite players and encourage performances, as four wins from five outings suggest.
But then he was always potentially just the stand-in; now he is in charge fully, June’s visit to the Rainbow Nation will be the 42-year-old’s first chance to stamp his own mark.
Any notion that Lancaster, with his lack of top level coaching experience, could be man-handled by the powers-that-be at HQ were quickly extinguished at a media briefing last week.
Players based overseas are supposed to be unavailable for England selection according to the RFU but Lancaster pointed to the “exceptional circumstances” clause.
When pushed if that essentially meant he could select someone he wanted from abroad, the coach replied: “Pretty much.”
The discussion came about due to the form of Steffan Armitage, the flanker who is pulling up trees in France with Toulon. He is unlikely to get the nod when the squad is named on Thursday but Lancaster did not decline the chance to show how much authority he has.
Pleasingly for him, too, is the number of players who are wanting to go on the five-match trip. After a World Cup year, Six Nations and Premiership campaign, it could be a tour some won’t fancy.
But Lancaster said: “The great thing is when we’ve asked conditioners and trainers about the mindset of the players, when we’ve spoken to them they are all desperate to go. It’s a fantastic benchmark for us, as a nation, to be able to go to South Africa and have players banging on director of rugbys’ doors saying ‘I want to be picked in big club games because I want to get pick for the tour.’ We’ll select it on Tuesday and it’ll be as full strength as possible; the way we finished the Six Nations won’t be far off the way start over there.”
In a 42-man squad, there will be chance to run the rule over a number of promising tyros as well, while Lancaster, pictured left, has delayed appointing his permanent staff until he returns from the trip.
After his failed attempt to lure All Black Wayne Smith – Andy Farrell also turned down the job – he will now wait until he gets back from South Africa before finalising his coaching set-up.