A tough tour suddenly got a whole lot tougher. This was the game England had to win because South Africa were undercooked and because England had to build on the momentum and confidence gained from the Six Nations. But it did not go to plan. Not remotely.
The Telegraph, London
The stark conclusions from what was a very ordinary Test match were that England still lack an attack that is capable of unlocking defences, even one as pedestrian as South Africa’s, and that they lack forwards who can mix it with the Bok pack.
It was reasonably close in the end thanks to a smartly taken try by Ben Foden but in the third quarter, when South Africa finally got their big men smashing forward, England were beaten in the collisions, beaten for territory, beaten for possession.
The result means that the Boks have won eight straight games against English opposition. With two Tests to come, there is every chance of that number reaching a damaging double figures.
It does not help England’s cause that South Africa took an age to find themselves in their first Test under Heyneke Meyer. Apart from Bryan Habana, still one the game’s great entertainers, and the impressive wrecking ball that is Willem Alberts, there was not much to get excited about from a Springbok point of view.
Indeed, for most of the first half, England were very much in the game. But when it mattered, when the screw needed to be turned, it was South Africa who raised the intensity and scored a brace of tries, through Morne Steyn and skipper Jean de Villiers, which swung the game their way. Although England battled back gamely, they were effectively out of contention on the hour mark, bit-part players in an unedifying spectacle.
It was good that the contest had a bit of excitement late on because the first half was wretched. On second thoughts, it was worse than that. Professionals playing Test-match rugby are under no obligation to entertain the paying public, but you would think there might be some desire to make the best of themselves.
The Springboks did not get close. They had the excuse of a new side coming together after a couple of training sessions but there was no subtlety, no imagination, nothing remotely resembling a cohesive, fluent idea of how to play the game.
By far the most dispiriting element was the time they took to organise themselves at the back of a static breakdown. As the clock ticked interminably on, Francois Hougaard pulled forwards this way and that to provide cover and time for him to box-kick, yet the scrum-half was so poor at this skill that on one occasion, even after an age had passed, Tom Johnson managed to charge down the clearance.
At least England showed some ingenuity in the first half, though it flared briefly and most often when Owen Farrell was not involved. His kicking game, like Ben Young’s inside him, was ill-judged. The kicks were too long, allowing the Bok catcher time to gather and reply with interest.
But Farrell’s unsympathetic passing hurt England most. When they did find space and momentum, which was not often, Farrell either fired the pass too hard or flung the ball hopefully behind a gaggle of would-be receivers. There are many outstanding qualities to Farrell, not least his temperament, but over the past few games he has struggled to get his back line going.
The half finished with England tied with South Africa 6-6, Morne Steyn and Farrell having banged over two penalties each. Manu Tuilagi was England’s most dangerous attacker, attracting two or more defenders to haul him down, and there was a fine run from Chris Ashton that required the fleet-footed Hougaard to pull him to ground.
Apart from those incidents, England were left to admire the roughhouse debut of Johnson, who tried to match the Bok in contact, and the general resolve of his team-mates.
The match slipped away from England early in the second half. There had been signs of growing South African authority. Alberts was always a handful, Bismarck du Plessis was finding outside shoulders and Habana was needle sharp.
Strangely, though, the pedestrian Morne Steyn opened South Africa’s account after Habana and De Villiers had counter-attacked and Alberts and Jannie du Plessis had thumped up the middle. When de Villiers added South Africa’s second 12 minutes later, flying horizontally through the final English defender, England’s goose was properly cooked.
England’s main concern after that was to limit the damage, which they achieved with Foden’s late try but this was a side running on empty and with problems increasing in seriousness.
If Johnson had a debut to be proud of, there was less to cheer about from Joe Marler, who was not helped by referee Steve Walsh’s fussing about the engagement sequence at scrum-time. At least Marler will be consoled with the fact that England’s scrummaging deteriorated after he was replaced.
Yet it is not the calibre of individuals that will perturb coach Stuart Lancaster as he seeks to unsettle the Boks in Johannesburg. There was no lack of effort from England, no lack of collective resolve. All that was fine. It was the mechanics that deserted them. They still find it difficult to progress in midfield.
It seemed that Ben Youngs was playing a game alien to the one that is so successful for him in Leicester colours, and that Farrell is not yet mature nor skilful enough to orchestrate a Test attack, especially when paired with Brad Barritt. Lancaster and Mike Catt, newly installed as England’s attack coach, need new personnel and new ideas if England are to stop the Boks wrapping up the series this Saturday.
Mind you, they are not alone. Yesterday was disastrous for the reputation of northern hemisphere rugby as Ireland, then Wales, then England fell to New Zealand, Australia and South Africa respectively.
The one northern hemisphere success of the week? Scotland, the wooden spooners of the Six Nations, against the Wallabies last Tuesday.