It’s becoming a tale all too familiar: a northern hemisphere team coming up just short of the southern hemisphere giants. This is particularly pertinent of England, who are struggling to cement themselves as serious contenders for the Webb Ellis Cup in a year’s time. Considering Ireland’s defeat of South Africa last week, England were looking to bounce back from their shortcomings against New Zealand by repeating their neighbour’s efforts. However, it was never to be from the outset. England are becoming a team renowned for a fast, aggressive start to the game and for amassing an early lead. South Africa clearly reviewed Jonny May’s dissection of the All Black defence last week, and fronted up with a big defensive effort early in today’s encounter. Despite some promising advances by Brown, Care and Eastmond, who in particular showed remarkable footwork to step into some miniscule gaps, the attacking intent was never fully realised. Yet England can be afforded some relief, as the first half was a relatively tame affair for both sides. It was frustrating from a home perspective, as England completely dominated both territory and possession, yet failed to convert this into points. Encapsulating that feeling was the breakaway try by Serfontein; the young centre read Danny Care brilliantly and intercepted his pass to gallop 50 metres under the posts.
England completely dominated both territory and possession, yet failed to convert this into points
The second half seemed to confirm that England were completely stifled by their visitors; within 60 seconds, South African scrum-half Cobus Reinach was fed an easy five points by enigmatic full-back Wille le Roux, who capitalised Pat Lambie’s wonderful kick. It was 6 – 20, and even though 40 minutes remained of the match, England seemed a world apart from their opposition in terms of accuracy and clinical finishing. Stuart Lancaster clearly shared the frustration and fears of his compatriots, and utilised his replacements bench far earlier than he would usually. Ben Morgan was brought on to replace Billy Vunipola; the Saracans back-row had enjoyed a fairly productive first half, but there is no denying the effectiveness of Morgan. He was powerful in set pieces, but even more dynamic in the loose. His influence reversed the tide of green fury and broadened the scope of English assault. Licking their wounds, England responded just as Lancaster and his coaching staff would have asked: they attacked South Africa in a typically South African way, bloodying their noses with pure forward power. Within minutes of Reinach’s try, an English maul had formed following a superbly executed line-out and had driven its way over the try-line. It is testament to the vision of Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt that they recognised the forwards’ intent, and joined the driving maul to help haul their team-mates over the line. This is attack was swiftly followed by one of a similar vein, from which Morgan split to weave his way over the try-line, carrying several defenders as he did. The man displayed impressive agility and footwork for all his bulk, and is a serious contender to start as number eight in place of Vunipola.
England attacked South Africa in a typically South African way, bloodying their noses with pure forward power
Rugby is a remarkably simple game at its roots. Momentum is hugely important, and whichever team is on the rise enjoys the lion’s share of luck and success. England struggled to build momentum in the first half, but produced a remarkable feat in completely reversing South Africa’s own power early in the second half. They built a head of steam, and spear-headed by Morgan they took the charge to the opponents. Patience, maturity and a cool temperament all essential in those situations; Robshaw’s captaincy proved invaluable as he took some fairly brave decisions. However, it is unfortunate that on this particular day the opposition were not willing to simply keel over and accept defeat. This is the team who recently defeated the All Blacks and boasted a team packed full of veterans and budding stars. They also possessed the long-gathered momentum of 11 consecutive international victories over England; with such wind at their sails, South Africa proved a difficult beast to tame. Pat Lambie was the mastermind of the South African come-back, kicking an impressive 13 points in total, including a second half drop-goal. It almost resembled a game of tennis: first South Africa led, then their hosts charged back, before Lambie led the visitors in front again. It was conceivable that England would charge back again with a late try by Barritt, yet Ford, who was a late replacement for Farrell, missed the conversion that would have made victory a possibility. In the end, South Africa showcased the class that accompanies experience, and were not to be undone at Twickenham. I will, as with last week, steadfastly refuse to join the mass criticism of English rugby that will surely accompany this defeat. Stuart Barnes, who was criticised last week for weak and overly pessimistic commentary, claimed that “England are in trouble” and are an “awfully long way behind” their opponents. I fundamentally reject these statements. Yes, England lost to South Africa for the twelfth time in a row, and it compounds their fifth consecutive defeat this year. However, they showed class and resilience in defeat, and again refused to kneel to a team who are internationally regarded as their superiors. Were Barnes in Lancaster’s shoes, and thank heavens he isn’t, he would make wholesale changes and completely reformat the English team. Yet panic is precisely what this team does not need. Some considerations do need to be made in particular positions; as previously stated, Ben Morgan deserves a look-in for a first XV position. Farrell was off-form today, and perhaps George Ford should be given a chance against Samoa. But a complete overhaul of the team would be catastrophic, and utterly detrimental to the hard work of Lancaster and his coaching staff.
England’s forwards are of a spectacular class and now the backs need to match these achievements
A brief comment by Robshaw post-game observed that England are not replicating what is being put in place at the training ground; they possess a game plan and it is simply not being realised on the pitch. This could be interpreted in several ways. Do England’s current players not possess the ability to carry out what Lancaster envisages, and need replacing as Barnes suggests? No, I do not think so. What they need is the mental resilience which is only amassed through experience. England’s forwards are of a spectacular class and now are aware of the fear they instil in their opposition. The backs now need to match these achievements and step up to the mark which has been laid for them. England now have two chances to reverse the tide of this year’s international series: Samoa next week, with the old enemy Australia waiting in the wings for the week after. These two games need to be won; nothing else is really acceptable. To be considered as challengers next year England need to at least draw this series. However, the signs are all there. Personally, England no longer look like expectant challengers, but as inaccurate heavyweights; this is a cause for encouragement, not despair.
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Image courtesy of alasdairmassie via Flickr