Springbok test is first must-win battle for Lancaster's England
Coach, crowd and players will be under intense scrutiny at Twickenham on Saturday
The build-up to England's crucial encounter with South Africa at Twickenham tomorrow has been overshadowed by allegations of homophobic abuse aimed at referee Nigel Owens during last week's match against New Zealand at Twickenham.
The Welshman, the first openly gay man to referee at international level, was criticised for his handling of the match in some quarters. In a letter to The Guardian newspaper it was alleged that a small section of fans had hurled abuse at Owens during England's 24-21 defeat to the All Blacks.
The RFU has launched an investigation and Owens told BBC Radio Wales he was confident they would do a thorough job in tracking down the culprits. "The RFU will take this seriously and deal with it," said the 43-year-old. "It's important to stop this from getting a bigger problem in the game."
England coach Stuart Lancaster offered his full support to the RFU's investigation when he addressed the press on Thursday prior to naming his XV to face the Springboks tomorrow. There is just one change to the side beaten by New Zealand, a first cap for 20-year-old Anthony Watson, who replaces the injured Semesa Rokodunguni on the wing.
Other than that Lancaster has shown faith in the side that failed to fire last weekend against New Zealand with Owen Farrell and Danny Care remaining at half-back despite a poor performance from the pair.
They and the rest of the England side know that they can't afford another disjointed display against South Africa if they want to be taken seriously as credible World Cup contenders next year. To lose to world champions New Zealand is acceptable, but defeat against a Springbok side squarely beaten 29-15 by Ireland last weekend would deal a heavy blow to England's World Cup aspirations.
It would also put Lancaster under pressure for the first time since he became coach at the start of 2012. So low had the reputation of the national rugby team sunk by then – what with players tossing dwarves and jumping off ferries – that Lancaster was given an extended honeymoon period by the media.
A thrilling victory over New Zealand in November 2012, followed by second place finishes in the 2013 and 2014 Six Nations contributed to the feeling that England were on the ascendency after a decade mired in mediocrity following their 2003 World Cup triumph.
But England have lost their last four Test matches – albeit all to New Zealand – and there are murmurings among the public and press that the squad has not progressed sufficiently in the past year. True, there have been a rash of injuries to key players, including centre Manu Tuilagi and props Dan Cole and Alex Corbisiero, but that can't excuse the lack of tactical direction and poor execution in recent matches.
New Zealand and South Africa are the top two sides in world rugby and England desperately need a victory over one of them if they're to begin building the self-belief vital for a World Cup campaign.
But it won't be easy. Not only are they likely to feel a South African backlash after their thumping defeat to Ireland, but England have not won any of their last eleven Tests against the Springboks. One has to go back to 2006 for their last victory, and England captain Chris Robshaw is aware of the size of the challenge tomorrow. "[A win] will be huge for this group," he said, adding that the squad knows last week's performance was sub-standard. "We'll learn our lessons and hopefully be more efficient and effective on the weekend."
More effective on the pitch, and less invective off it – that would be the ideal scenario for English rugby on Saturday.