England's team to face South Africa in the first Test on Saturday should encourage junior club players everywhere. Not so long ago the two new English caps, Joe Marler and Tom Johnson, were turning out for Haywards Heath and Reading respectively, a different rugby universe from the showdown with the Springboks this weekend. There is talent in the lower leagues for those prepared to seek and nurture it.
Marler, still only 21, also counts Worthing and Esher among his old clubs, while the 29-year-old Johnson, the son of an air commodore, is the first Exeter player to be capped by England since 1963. Together they will feature in a starting lineup showing four personnel changes from the big win over Ireland in March, with Ben Youngs and Mike Brown earning recalls and Ben Foden switching to the left wing.
The Boks' gaze, though, will be inexorably drawn to Marler, who favours a dyed-blond mohawk which, at first glance, makes it look as if Stuart Lancaster has picked the mad leather-clad biker, Wez, from the old road warrior movie Mad Max 2. The new prop is no ordinary Joe and has forced his way into the international limelight courtesy of an outstanding season for the new Premiership champions Harlequins.
The South African front-row of Tendai "Beast" Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis and the latter's brother Jannie will waste no time probing for weaknesses but Marler, a feisty competitor who enjoyed his stint on loan to Esher two years ago, does not seem fazed.
"You've got to front up because they're going to be playing in your face. It'll be on the edge but we have to be able to control ourselves and match them physically. You want to test yourself against the best." His discipline, he insists, will not waver "regardless of whether I've got funny hair" and he has matured considerably since a couple of stormy contests against Gloucester and Leicester two seasons ago. "I'm sure [the Springboks] will try to pick on lots of players but there's no point going off and looking for a scrap left, right and centre."
Marler's rapid improvement as a scrummager has also been partly down to long, uncomfortable training sessions opposite Dan Cole during the Six Nations period. He did not get any game time but learned a huge amount. "I thought: 'I've got to get things right or I'm going to be embarrassed.' Coley's one of the best in the world. To go up against him for seven weekends in a row was a great learning experience." Quins' much-improved scrum has also boosted his confidence. "We wanted to eradicate the mindset of everyone thinking we had a soft underbelly and show we were not going to be bullied."
Johnson, who also spent time at Coventry before Rob Baxter lured him to Exeter five seasons ago, was born in Düsseldorf and grew up in Cheltenham where he was a scrum-half until the age of 18. After leaving Oxford Brookes University, he came close to training as a paratrooper and delayed a career in the forces as a 22-year-old only because Coventry offered him a one-year contract.
Lancaster will want all the firepower he can muster this weekend and has succeeded in assembling a team with a hungry look to it. Johnson and Marler are both productive ball carriers and the redeployment of Foden to the wing is a proactive move that should also help to nullify South Africa's aerial kicking threat. Brown has also been picked on form and is a vastly more effective player than the one who made his Test debut in South Africa five years ago.
Youngs's form has gradually been returning, too, and he has been entrusted with the No9 jersey ahead of Lee Dickson and Danny Care for a game of major significance. "If we are serious about becoming one of the best sides in the world, we need to benchmark ourselves against the best," said Lancaster. "You can feel the weight of expectation and pressure … it's a bit like the calm before the storm at the moment. The beauty of this series is that we've got three games to see who learns the quickest."
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