By Ben Coles
With bodies creaking, England will have flown down to Port Elizabeth disappointed with their showing at Ellis Park against a phenomenally powerful Springbok side. At altitude they were blown apart by South Africa in the first half, missing multiple first tackles and unable to halt the momentum of the Boks behind the gain line when their runners came from deep.
This was the South Africa from the start of the second half in Durban, but causing prolonged damage and technically much improved at the breakdown. The numbers thrown in were at a minimum but grossly effective, man-handling England and chucking them aside. It felt like a professional side against a schoolboy outfit as the hosts repeatedly powered through tackles and tore their visitors apart. In fact the intensity was so high, that by the 50 minute mark with an 18 point lead at 28-10, the Boks took their foot off the gas.
It was here that England stepped up – a combination of Bok departures and the cavalry arriving off the bench in the form of Alex Corbisiero, Tom Palmer and Thomas Waldrom shifting the momentum. In fact, Waldrom’s carries and Corbisiero’s scrummaging were integral to the English response. The Leicester No 8 was by far the best player in Potschefstroom on Wednesday and carried that form through to Johannesburg, finding metres beyond the gain line where Ben Morgan had struggled and making his presence felt.
Inspired by The Tank and finding dominance in the set-piece led to two tries from Ben Youngs, who put in one of his best performances in a white shirt for some time. His tap penalty in the first half led to a Toby Flood try that England sorely needed after the opening onslaught. That the Leicester scrum-half has now been ruled out of the 3rd Test due to injury is a cruel blow given his performance.
England will therefore have a new man at scrum-half but they have much bigger worries on their minds. When a team loses out on technicalities, areas can be corrected and fine-tuned. But when it comes down to a matter of physical power and being left on your back, the problems become more psychological. Emphasis this week will be placed on improving England’s impact in the tackle and their effectiveness at the breakdown, because they will not progress as a side missing 35 tackles a match and being bullied into submission.
With regards to selection, tough choices have to be made. Ben Morgan was alarmingly quiet in patches last week in Durban but throughout the 2nd Test he seemed anonymous, made worse by how effective Waldrom appeared to be when he came on. Will Greenwood spoke at half-time of England’s need for a Joe Worsley style defender and the best tackler in the squad is probably Carl Fearns, meaning the door is open for his inclusion.
Elsewhere, Corbisiero did enough to warrant a return to the No 1 shirt in place of Joe Marler, whilst Tom Palmer was very effective after replacing Mouritz Botha. Where England must not change is in the backs. Fielding their youngest centre partnership for 76 years, Manu Tuilagi and Jonathan Joseph toiled but failed to find the gaps in the Boks defence. Given that this was Tuilagi’s first test at 12 and Joseph’s first start ever, they both went well in the circumstances, especially with Jean de Villier in such imperious form.
More exposure at this level for a youthful squad will only benefit them going forward and they produced enough positive touches to show that they belonged. But this was an afternoon for England to wipe the blood from their noses and reflect. They were physically bullied yet reduced a heavy lead to four points. They must learn from it and move on.
Follow Ben Coles on Twitter @bencolesTRB