Rugby Union: 'I could not see them scoring'

David Llewellyn watches England's back row emerge with honour despite defeat
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The Independent Online
Three down, one to go. The intensity of England's pre-Christmas programme against southern-hemisphere excellence began to tell on them as they were battered to an exhausted halt at Twickenham, conceding the highest number of points in an international at HQ.

There were some heroic performances, unfortunately mostly confined to defence. There was just too little ball for Lawrence Dallaglio and his men to work with. Their try only came when Nick Greenstock robbed the careless Springboks of the ball. What possession they did have they failed to turn into points. The South Africa coach, Nick Mallett, accused England afterwards of not being creative enough and went on to say: "It seems to me that after they'd won third or fourth phase possession, England wanted to put the ball up in the air rather than try and break their opponents down through any other means. To create opportunities, you have got to take risks."

The Oxford blue was impressed, however, by the England back row. They certainly tackled their weight, particularly in an absorbing first half when Neil Back made a nonsense of the concept that big is best of all. He threw his 5ft 10in, 14st 4lb frame at anything and everything green and gold that moved, or showed even a suspicion of motion.

Often he popped up as link man whenever the scrum-half, Matt Dawson, decided to take on the warriors of the Rainbow Nation and finished up under a pile of bodies. At moments such as these Back's handling gifts came to the fore as he spun out class pass after express delivery.

But while Back packed down in his orthodox position of openside flanker, his captain, Dallaglio, despite wearing the England No 6 shirt, took over at No 8 at the scrums, leaving Richard Hill to cover the blindside flank, which he did with his customary hard-headed efficiency.

Hill's work-rate was tremendous. If Back, or anyone else for that matter, needed support they did not have long to wait. The Saracens' back-row man was invariably there applying his not inconsiderable presence to help out his team-mates.

But energy expended at such a rate is draining. Shortly before the hour Hill was taken off and replaced by Wasps' Chris Sheasby, a natural No 8, in a subtle tactical shift by the England coach, Clive Woodward. It allowed Dallaglio to slot into his more familiar position on the blindside. Dallaglio had by then pulled off a stunning tackle on the Springbok full- back, Percy Montgomery, as South Africa opened up after the restart.

The South African trio were no mugs though. Andrew Aitken revealed himself as a dangerous opponent. He is blessed with wonderful skills and plenty of pace, while his more experienced colleagues, the captain Gary Teichmann and openside Andre Venter (more of a tanker than a flanker), provided some heavyweight backing around the fringes. Mind you, Venter is no slouch. He broke clear near the end and charged like a water buffalo for the England line; it took a brave tackle by Austin Healey to bring the 6ft 5in, 16st 5lb forward crashing to earth.

Afterwards Woodward said: "I am disappointed. We had a pretty good first half, but losing fly-half Mike Catt just before half time was a big blow. He was playing really well at No 10, despite all the criticism there has been of him in that position. His kicking was fantastic and for a while I could not see them scoring.

"But we seemed to lose all direction when he went off. He was knocked out and has gone to hospital as a precaution. He will be out for a few weeks, and we will have to regroup for New Zealand. Everyone just got very tired. I was trying to get some fresh people on but it just wasn't enough."