By Ben Coles
THE DREADED series whitewash might have been avoided but the desired victory England so desperately wanted slipped agonisingly away following Owen Farrell’s late drop goal miss in Port Elizabeth. The touring side have contested over the last month showing the gap between the Springboks and themselves is closer than people think. In a third Test outing that possessed lashings of commitment but little creativity for the sell-out crowd in the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, England appeared to regress into their Six Nations attacking shells by persistently kicking away possession.
No one was more culpable in this department than young Saracen Owen Farrell. An early replacement for the injured Toby Flood, the game management from England’s chosen one in the Six Nations has come under scrutiny on this summer’s tour with his inability to create substantial opportunities for his runners a conundrum England have been trying to rectify with for some time.
In fact, the tour to South Africa has worked perfectly for England not in terms of the results, but in providing a sterner test of Lancaster’s charges. South Africa has shown who is capable of taking on the best teams in the world, and who is still wearing ‘L’ plates at the highest level.
Focusing on the positives, no one has arguably impressed more in South Africa than Tom Johnson. The Exeter Chief may be a latecomer to international rugby but he has not looked out of place – far from it. Instead he has contributed brilliantly to every Test, making a remarkable number of carries and tackles.
Other plusses have been the return to form of both Ben Youngs and Danny Care, the classy emergence of Alex Goode into international rugby, Joe Marler’s steady scrummaging improvement and the realization that in Chris Robshaw, England truly have a world class player with the ability to transform games single handedly. Even in defeat, Robshaw stood out.
Naturally though, given that England are returning home on the back of a 2-0 series defeat, there are a long list of improvements that need addressing. England might have scored six tries in three matches but their attack has been largely based around a kicking game that for the main part has been ineffective – lacking imagination and purpose which, Youngs aside in the Second Test, has not been accurate enough to cater for effective kick chases.
Farrell was a repeat offender during the final Test wasting possession. Jonathan Joseph has been proclaimed as the next great talent of English rugby at outside centre but if he never receives any passes or is given the space to perform then his star will never shine.
Another concern has been England’s number of missed tackles. Where England were so strong in the Six Nations under the tutelage of the currently resting Andy Farrell, they have been woeful for long periods of the 240 brutal minutes in South Africa.
What’s more, the dips in form of Ben Morgan, Mouritz Botha, Farrell and others have been a road bump in the long-term progression towards the 2015 Rugby World Cup. What matters though is that England make mistakes on these tours now and not in two or three years. There is still time to correct the attack and defence and with an average losing margin of just under 5 points England are not far from challenging the world’s elite.