By Alan Pearey, Rugby World Deputy Editor
In a nutshell
AN INTENSELY frustrating day for England, who on the balance of play did enough to earn a first win over the Springboks in 11 meetings. They had an edge in most areas and carved out what few try-scoring opportunities there were – but squandered every one. In addition, Toby Flood chose a bad day to miss a couple of straightforward penalty kicks.
Against Australia, England lost to a try with more than a hint of blocking and a forward pass. Against the Boks they lost to a ludicrous try that came in the only spell of the match when the visitors threatened the English line.
But don’t feel too sorry for England – this was a South Africa side shorn of Bismarck du Plessis, Schalk Burger, Juan Smith, Tendai Mtawarira, Pierre Spies, Frans Steyn and Bryan Habana. England were much closer to full strength and had the advantage of home territory and freshness. England are a work-in-progress but they should be winning games like this.
In such testing conditions, there was barely a whiff of a try from orthodox means. Instead, it took something truly freakish to decide the outcome: Toby Flood’s fly-hack ricocheted off JP Pietersen in a gentle arc towards the goal-line, where Tom Wood, facing backwards, fumbled to present Willem Alberts with his third try in four outings against England. “It was the crucial moment,” said Stuart Lancaster, “because a ten-point gap (6-16) on a day like that left us having to climb a mountain.”
Star man: Eben Etzebeth
The 21-year-old Springbok lock was as colossal as his 6ft 8in frame, making 17 tackles and two turnovers in an inspired performance. When Tom Youngs came to his brother’s aid during a set-to between Ben Youngs and Etzebeth, I don’t think the young Bok even noticed – he was that pumped up. He has that look of a 100-cap player about him.
It was a day for the big men because Joe Launchbury also impressed on his first Test start, while Geoff Parling produced his best performance in open play for England, repeatedly carrying the ball and more than matching the physicality of the Boks in the tight. The lineout creaked but no surprise there against the world’s best exponents – South Africa lost just one lineout in three Tests on this tour.
Room for improvement
I’m not one of those about to slate Chris Robshaw for his decision-making – he is a young man learning the art of Test-match captaincy (this was his 11th cap).
His decision to go kick at goal when England faced a four-point deficit with two minutes left has divided opinion. In my book it was the wrong call. There was exactly 60 seconds remaining when the Boks restarted and had they kicked long, as they should have done, England would have had to work the ball some 80 metres – to get within drop-goal range – from one play.
Had they kicked for the corner and gone for the 5m lineout, the odds would still have been heavily against them, but an English pack at Twickenham should back itself to drive over from close range, or create enough mayhem to bring a try down the line.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer: “The outstanding thing for me is that we’ve had only three losses this year; we started it as No 4 in the world and have ended it as No 2. We had ten superstars away for this tour and this was an inexperienced side. We’re not used to playing these conditions and the great thing is how the youngsters have adapted. The next World Cup will be here and this is how you win trophies, by grinding things out. We’ve added a defence on this tour and the team has a long way.”
England coach Stuart Lancaster: “The physicality was a big step-up from the Australia game. We asked the players to make that step and they delivered. The try was pretty unlucky for us but it’s how you react – have you got the character to come back against the second-best team in the world? And our response showed you can’t question the character of this team. We didn’t win but there was enough there from a young team to give us confidence for the long term. We won’t go into the All Blacks game worrying that we won’t get a performance.”
England had 60% of the territory and 58% of the ball. They conceded almost half the number of penalties (nine to the Boks’ 17) and made 433 metres with ball in hand against the Boks’ 169. There were five line breaks by England to South Africa’s one. If only they had kicked all their goals…
ENGLAND: Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Manu Samoa, Brad Barritt, Mike Brown; Toby Flood (Owen Farrell 6-10, 45), Ben Youngs (Danny Care 67); Alex Corbisiero (Mako Vunipola 53), Tom Youngs (David Paice 67), Dan Cole (David Wilson 75), Joe Launchbury (Mauritz Botha 72), Geoff Parling, Tom Wood (James Haskell 53), Chris Robshaw (capt), Ben Morgan.
Replacement not used: Jonathan Joseph.
SOUTH AFRICA: Zane Kirchner; JP Pietersen, Juan de Jongh, Jean de Villiers (capt), Francois Hougaard; Pat Lambie, Ruan Pienaar; Gurthrö Steenkamp (Heinke van der Merwe 61), Adriaan Strauss (Schalk Brits 74), Jannie du Plessis (Pat Cilliers ht), Eben Etzebeth (Flip van der Merwe 69), Juandré Kruger, Francois Louw, Willem Alberts (Marcell Coetzee 56), Duane Vermeulen.
Replacements not used: Elton Jantjies, Jaco Taute, Lwazi Mvovo.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)