English coach Stuart Lancaster said there were plenty of positives to take from their 22-17 defeat to the Springboks in Durban, with the first half a tight affair that saw both teams head to the sheds levelled at 6-6 all.
The opening half arm-wrestle saw a distinct clash of styles.
The Springboks were clearly focused on the old school, looking to use their heavyweight pack, led by the abrasive 120kg Willem Alberts, to bludgeon the visitors into submission.
Hints of the Bulls gameplan also came to bear, but the English were able to counter effectively with Ben Youngs having an excellent opening 40 minutes, while the fetching style of captain Chris Robshaw and Tom Johnson gave them honours against a Springboks back row with no specialist openside.
However Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer, who looked almost as if he was aging with stress during the first half, admitted to lashing out at his players at halftime, and it was a different team that came out in the second half.
Not so much different in tactics, but there were raised levels of brutality that only a Springbok pack can unleash, while there was a hint more creativity in the backline, with Morné Steyn and Jean de Villiers crossing for tries in a compelling third quarter for the home team.
Moving to altitude for the second test, Lancaster said the team would head to Johannesburg in high spirits.
“From our point of view, I was really pleased with the first-half performance. There are a lot of positives to take,” he said.
“The critical area for us to work on is that third quarter where the Springboks controlled the game well and scored their two tries.
“I am delighted with the comeback at the end (with Ben Foden scoring near the death) and the mindset we showed to keep playing.
“For a lot of young players out there, and the new caps, there were some fantastic performances all round. I am really pleased with a lot of aspects of the game. There are one or two areas to work on but lots of positives as well, so we will go in really good heart to Johannesburg.”
England have two injury concerns after the match, with midfielder Brad Barritt leaving the second half with an injury to his face, while fullback Mike Brown had a hand injury.
England need to find a way of breaking free of South African shackles in the coming weeks, according to backs coach Mike Catt.
Despite plenty of willing endeavour, Catt admits that England were stifled in attack and starved of chances in the first Test defeat by the Springboks in Durban.
England were edged out 22-17 at Kings Park and now face a tough task to level the three-match series at altitude in Johannesburg next week.
“At the start of the second half we just didn’t get any momentum,” said former England international Catt “That go-forward we had in the first half.”
“That is a little bit disappointing and something we can look at. We will address it with the boys and let’s make sure we don’t put ourselves in those situations again.”
“With the attacking options we’ve got we would have liked to have had more ball in hand and I think that is something we have got to look at – why aren’t they getting more ball.”
England reshaped their back three with Harlequins full-back Mike Brown coming in for his first start in four years and Ben Foden moving to the left wing.
Chris Ashton continued to fill the right-wing berth but, although Foden claimed England’s last-gasp consolation try, it was a frustrating night for the trio.
“Ash is working exceptionally hard, off his wing continually,” Catt added. “Those chances haven’t come for him just yet.”
“But the back three of Foden, Brown and Ash – it is the first time they have played together.”
“There will be more continuity next week. We can work on the things Browny and Fodes think we need to work on.”
England performed strongly in defence but relentless Springbok pressure paid off in the second half as tries from Morne Steyn and captain Jean de Villiers put the hosts into a decisive lead.
Forwards coach Graham Rowntree said: “I actually think the set-piece was a good area for us going into the last quarter.”
“But the last couple of scrums – they brought on some fresh ‘cattle’ and we struggled to deal with that.”
“That is something we will be working on this week but my overall feel from the forward pack, I was very pleased, particularly with the lineout.”
“I have to make a special mention for Joe Marler and Tom Johnson, I thought their workrate was phenomenal.”
“There are areas to improve on, as always against these big teams, but we will improve in the week.”