England cantered to their first win over South Africa in 10 years at a packed out Twickenham, but the performance was far from perfect
By Alex Shaw
Eddie Jones’ England kept their undefeated year on track on Saturday, recording a 37-21 victory over South Africa and ending a winless streak against the Springboks that extended all the way back to 2006.
After a nervous opening 30 minutes – understandable with a 10-year monkey on their back – England moved up a gear and cruised to a comfortable victory at Twickenham, but it was far from a vintage performance from the hosts.
We delve into the good and the bad of the performance here, as well as the areas Jones and his charges need to work on ahead of upcoming Tests with Fiji, Argentina and Australia.
Starting with the good, impressive individual performances from several players were at the heart of England’s victory and none more so than the one turned in by Ben Youngs.
The scrum-half had one of his best games in an England jersey, weighting his kicks perfectly for his chasers and constantly proving a thorn in the side of South Africa’s fringe defence around the rucks. In fact, Youngs’ propensity to take a step before passing saw him find two gaping holes in the Springbok defence, which he promptly exploited and turned into tries for both George Ford and Owen Farrell.
Another standout was dynamic back-rower Billy Vunipola, who could not be stopped on the gain line or by a single Springbok tackler. For 19 carries, Vunipola towed South African defenders with him, sucked in bodies to the rucks and allowed England to find space on the wings on the occasions they could quickly ship the ball out wide.
The work rate and general cleaning up duties of Chris Robshaw, Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes also stood out, as did the direction – not to mention the second and third kicking options – of centres Farrell and Elliot Daly. The trio of Robshaw, Launchbury and Lawes accounted for 21% of England’s carries and 26% of their tackles.
One last player deserving of mention was Jonny May.
The winger did not see too much of the ball, but scored the opening try, chased well and defended manfully. To look so confident and assured on a knee that was only recently surgically reconstructed is quite the achievement. He deserves kudos for his rehabilitation, as much as for his performance.
The handling skills of the team in wet conditions certainly exceeded those of England teams of recent years, particularly in their first Test of the season. Both Vunipola and Farrell took the ball to the line with purpose and threat, found options on the outside and inside and the lack of unforced errors from England was anything but customary.
Battles such as the tactical kicking game and the contact area were both won, which allowed the hosts to control the territorial and possession contests and even though they never cut loose and put the Springboks away in the fashion they threatened to, it suffocated the South Africans and snuffed out any chance the visitors had to win the game.
The lineout – with three new jumpers in Launchbury, Lawes and Tom Wood – was efficient and a Saracens-esque try line defensive stand towards the end of the second half were both positives, but lead on to two major negatives for England from this performance: the scrum and their defensive concentration.
Springbok loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira gave Dan Cole and England a torrid time in the first few scrums, turning the screw on the Leicester man and the fact England’s good handling reduced the number of scrums was a big positive for the hosts.
Mtawarira is one of, if not the most adept scrummaging loosehead in world rugby, so his performance was anything but surprising but it will have opened some eyes about an area of the England team that was believed to be one of its biggest strengths.
Defensive concentration also waned at times, specifically leading to the two Springbok tries.
Missed tackles as the South Africans put width on the ball led to Johan Goosen’s score, whilst some casual defensive reorganising created the space for Willie le Roux to go over in the final minute of the game.
The game was all but wrapped up by the time Goosen went over for South Africa’s first try but that does not excuse the momentary mental switching off from the players and it was clearly something which irked both Jones and Paul Gustard.
Attacking decision-making was another area where England will be looking to improve.
Ford’s decision to drop back and attempt a drop goal in the first half was a head-scratcher, particularly with the South African defence struggling to stay organised when England put speed and width on the ball. The lead was slim at that point and the desire to put points on the board was understandable but with the phase count still low, it showed a surprising lack of ambition.
Similarly, Daly had a couple of opportunities to put the afterburners on and go on his trademark outside arcs, but instead cut inside and did not break the gain line on either carry. A safer option, certainly, but one that could have been the difference between victory and defeat in a closer game.
The most notable and potentially costly negatives about England’s performance, however, were the early discipline issues.
England conceded 10 penalties to South Africa’s seven, with the majority coming in the opening 30 minutes.
They struggled to stay onside, with Wood and Launchbury both culpable early on. Not only did it prevent England from building any early momentum, it gave the Springboks plenty of opportunities for points and/or pressure relief, something which will prove costlier against a more clinical side.
Whilst the handling was markedly improved from the autumnal performances we have seen from England in recent years, the indiscipline was a far more familiar sight.
With all that said, England ended a winless streak that had lasted for a grand total of nine years and 359 days in their first Test of the season, against a team that had been playing together, on and off, for the last five months.
As a group, the hosts never even came close to playing to their current ability.
They undoubtedly played better rugby on their tour of Australia this summer, but to still comfortably see off the Springboks and have so many players missing through injury, well, it’s another positive step forward in Jones’ vision of where he wants England to be in three years’ time.