INCONSISTENT? NOT England. You can set your clock - or, to be absolutely precise, your advent calendar - by the way they play their rugby. One world-class performance every 12 months, always in the first week of December, makes them paragons of regularity. It may be exasperating for the patriotic purist who measures his country's achievements in terms of matches won and trophies installed in cabinets, but at least the smoked salmon socialites know when to book their Twickenham tickets.
It was on 6 December 1997 that the red roses last bloomed in such glorious unison and on that occasion, the best side in the world once removed - the All Blacks - were profoundly fortunate to board the plane back to New Zealand with a draw tucked away in their hand luggage. A year on, the latest best team in the world - the Springboks - were not nearly so lucky. Sadly, next year's World Cup final is scheduled for 6 November and will therefore arrive four weeks early for England, but in the absence of an appropriately timed international fixture, they could still make one hell of a mess of a few pampered students by gatecrashing the Varsity Match.
The message was not lost on Lawrence Dallaglio as the England captain reflected on a tense, neurotic and ultimately tumultuous afternoon of thud and blunder. "The South Africans came here as reigning world champions and, more to the immediate point, as the best and most successful side currently playing Test rugby," he said. "And we beat them. Good for us; it's an incredibly satisfying feeling. But we haven't inherited their mantle by winning one tight game over 80 minutes. We will only equal and surpass the best by beating them consistently and, quite obviously, we still have a long way to travel in that regard."
Before they embark on that little expedition, Dallaglio's men will have to negotiate their way from cloud nine to terra firma rather more quickly than they completed a similar trip this time last season. After matching the All Blacks blow for blow, they set sail for France in a spirit of high-flown adventure and quickly found themselves in the Parisian version of Queer Street. This time, they sit out the first round of Five Nations matches before welcoming the Scots to Twickenham in the penultimate week of February. That game is now central to England's psychological well- being, as well as to their World Cup planning.
Dallaglio's reaction to England's first victory over serious southern hemisphere opposition in three and a half years was right and proper: a climactic rush of jubilation at the final whistle, a quiet smirk of self-congratulation in the corner of the dressing-room and then a renewed furrowing of the brow in contemplation of the battles and wars to come.
"One of the good things about this performance was the way we reacted to that opening Springbok try," mused the captain. "We always thought we would win enough possession to take the game to them, but when you go seven points down early to a side chasing a world record you need self- belief every bit as much as you need the ball. When the question was asked, the belief was there."
In fact, it was England who asked the more fundamental questions; questions that the Springbok tight five, in particular, were unable to answer. The loss to long-term injury of Os du Randt, that Table Mountain of a loose- head prop, has had such a debilitating effect on the Bokke pack that Darren Garforth, Martin Johnson and Tim Rodber were able to clap the tourists in leg irons. It did not help the tourists' cause that Bobby Skinstad, their mesmerically gifted flanker, was permitted so loose a role by the South African tacticians. "He's going to have to get a bit ugly rather than hang around in the threequarters waiting for some razzmatazz; it was seven of theirs against eight of ours for a lot of the game," remarked Jeremy Guscott, talking like a prop who missed his vocation.
Admittedly, Skinstad created the one and only South Africa try by holding up the ball going left, sucking three England defenders into his magnetic field and then floating the most exquisite skip-pass to Pieter Rossouw. But when the Boks needed something earthier, some darker deed to be performed, poor Rassie Erasmus was invariably down there on his ownsome, striving for parity in an unequal struggle with Dallaglio, Richard Hill and Neil Back. It would take the tourists another 75 minutes to break loose again, only to be denied by Dan Luger's fingertips as Werner Swanepoel tried to locate the predatory Stefan Terblanche with a pass that might have been the saving of his side.
By contrast, England's game plan - yes, they really do have one - worked like clockwork, right down to the call for Mike Catt to hang a teasing cross-field kick on the head of a back-pedalling Terblanche. Just as he would deep in injury time, Luger stole a march on his man by fielding the ball and wrestling away a scoring pass to Guscott, who had already pelted around the short side and fixed his sights on the left corner flag. "Nothing to do with me," smiled Clive Woodward, whose critics have labelled him a tactic-free zone. Of course, it had everything to do with him. He remains an inspired attacking theoretician.
At seven points apiece inside 13 minutes, the declarations of intent had been made; there would be no quarter asked or given, no backward steps and the Devil take the hindmost. It was brutally hard. Like two boiled eggs quivering on the same plate, Richard Cockerill and James Dalton were in punching range of each other from first ruck to last. Robbie Kempson found Garforth such a tiresome handful that he lost his rag entirely; Krynauw Otto caught Guscott with a miserably cheap shot that sent the Prince of Centres flying horizontally past the Royal Box; and, more legitimately, the magnificent Erasmus sliced both Catt and Rodber in two with plutonium- enriched tackles.
In a contest of such grim intensity, the error count was always likely to be decisive. The Springboks made more, far more, than England. Not only did they give Matt Dawson, admirably cool on his kicking debut at Twickenham, the chance to goal two contrasting second-half penalties to clinch the spoils, but they allowed the London crowd to see the likes of Percy Montgomery, Joost van der Westhuizen and Mark Andrews in an entirely new light. That is to say, as imperfect human beings rather than green- shirted demigods.
Mercifully, some aspects of rugby will never change. If you make your tackles - all of them - you will always stand a better than even chance of victory. And, more importantly still, no one ever gets to win them all. Not even 15 Springboks with one hand on history.
England: Try Guscott; Conversion Dawson; Penalties Dawson 2. South Africa: Try Rossouw; Conversion Montgomery.
ENGLAND: N Beal (Northampton); T Underwood (Newcastle), J Guscott (Bath), P de Glanville (Bath), D Luger (Harlequins); M Catt (Bath), M Dawson (Northampton); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (all Leicester), T Rodber (Northampton), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: D Rees (Sale) for Underwood, 8; A Healey (Leicester) for Rees, 22; A King (Wasps) for de Glanville, 59; D Grewcock (Saracens) for Rodber, 67.
SOUTH AFRICA: P Montgomery (Western Province); S Terblanche (Boland), A Snyman (Blue Bulls), C Stewart, P Rossouw (both Western Province); H Honiball (Natal), J van der Westhuizen (Blue Bulls); R Kempson (Natal), J Dalton (Golden Lions), A Garvey (Natal), K Otto (Blue Bulls), M Andrews (Natal), J Erasmus (Free State), G Teichmann (Natal, capt), R Skinstad (Western Province). Replacements: A Venter (Free State) for Andrews, 48; O le Roux (Natal) for Garvey, 59; W Swanepoel (Free State) for Van der Westhuizen, 69.
Referee: P O'Brien (New Zealand).