The England Saxons rode out a late comeback from South Africa A to win 32-24 in highly creditable circumstances in the High Veld of Bloemfontein
England Saxons beat South Africa A 32-24 in Bloemfontein on Friday night but, apart from Sky’s coverage, you would hardly have known it was taking place with all the attention being on the full Test matches in the southern hemisphere. But it was a worthy exercise, and there is one more match to come, on Friday in George.
The whole match day 23 benefitted
Never underestimate what a win in South Africa does, whoever you are playing for. Back in 2000, the full England team, having lost in Pretoria a week before, went to Bloemfontein and beat the Springboks 27-22. They did not lose to the southern hemisphere big three, home or away, until 2004, and we all know what happened in between, and whilst no-one is saying that the Saxons will win the next World Cup it is a notable feather in their cap.
If you haven’t been to South Africa for a rugby match then try it wearing a white shirt – it is no place for the faint-hearted – and that is just in the stands. They have been to the Land of the Bok, and won at least one game and that is something to take back to their clubs next season and maybe into the England senior squad. None of the blokes in Australia on the top-flight tour have won in a white shirt with a rose on it down in South Africa.
Eddie Jones will be taking notes from afar
The England boss is a renowned insomniac, but even he was not up watching the game live, but you can rest assured he will be poring over the video. Jones always puts it out that his only job is to coach the first team but he would be a fool to overlook what went on, on Friday. And Jones is no fool. He knows he will need extra ammunition ahead of the autumn internationals, the Six Nations in 2017 and everything else beyond. And Friday’s fixture dug up a few likely lads.
Anyone who has watched Sale this year would not have been surprised with Mike Haley’s all-action display from full-back whilst Alec Hepburn, the Exeter loose-head prop, could be ousted from the front-row union for his play in the loose and dynamism. He will be pushing Joe Marler, Mako Vunipola and Matt Mullan next term. Chuck in Danny Cipriani, Dan Robson, Nick Tompkins and Ollie Devoto and it is looking pretty good for Jones. He wanted depth – he has got it.
More Saxons action needed, please
The last time the Saxons played was in Cork in January 2015 when they beat the Irish Wolfhounds 18-9. Maro Itoje came off the bench that day, as did Luke Cowan-Dickie and Marland Yarde, Henry Slade, Matt Mullan and Elliot Daly, of the crew currently in Australia, all started. But all countries need more of these ‘A’ games. They are invaluable for developing youngsters and rehabilitating old players – unless your name is Chris Ashton.
Of course England used to play in the Churchill Cup but that finished in 2011 and the RFU and the South African Union had to jump through hoops to get this two-match series on.
The Churchill Cup featured teams from the United States, Argentina, Canada, Ireland, France, Georgia, Russia, Tonga, Scotland, Uruguay, New Zealand Maori and Italy over the years. Everyone was a winner so why not bring it back?
Altitude and a game of two halves
Bloemfontein is 1,400 metres above sea level and the Saxons were gasping for breath in the second half when they almost lost a 22-3 lead at the interval and were hanging on until Devoto’s late try nailed the game. The Saxons had done their pre-match training in Durban, which is at sea level, and travelled to the Highveld on the day before the match.
Now I am no sports scientist – and I am sure there are reasons for them going late – but if you have done the same trip you really do feel the difference for the first couple of days. The Saxons looked like they were feeling it late on too.
Useful exercise for coaching staff
The Saxons coaching staff headed up by Exeter’s Ali Hepher, who is being assisted by Alan Dickens, from Northampton and Wasps’ Andy Titterrell, have had little time to have much influence on the players and early on in the game that showed. But the trio had obviously told their side to go out and give it a crack, like the senior team after the first 15 minutes in Brisbane.
Maybe having loads of preparation time is over-rated. England had months in the lead-up to the World Cup and look where it got them. Hepher has been tipped up as one of the rising stars of the English coaching firmament and if the Glen Ella appointment with the full side really is only a temporary one the Exeter man could be getting a tap on the shoulder from Twickenham.