Rugby Union: The graceless goodbye

England v South Africa: World champions exit in a hurry after England's scrum-half holds his nerve
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The Independent Online
THE end, when it came, was ignominious. On the threshold of a truly remarkable statistic, the South Africans blotted the record books and then threw away the code of rugby conduct. Instead of waiting to congratulate their 13-7 conquerors, the touring team stalked off down the tunnel without shaking hands or forming the traditional corridor of camaraderie.

Andre Venter was showered and changed before the celebrating England captain Lawrence Dallaglio had led his leg-weary England troops off the Twickenham pitch. The sporting wheel had turned; South Africa, like the Australians the week before, were out on their feet. This time, England made no mistake.

England will not waste too much time reflecting on the manner of the victory. Unconvincing or not, this was the breakthrough for which Clive Woodward, the England coach, had waited and suffered so long. His first victory over a southern hemisphere team, and the world champions at that. Not a bad debut scalp. Woodward's own dance of joy on the steps of the main stand spoke of his relief. Another defeat and the mounting call for his head might have reached the doors of the Rugby Football Union a few yards away.

England caught South Africa on a truly terrible day. The team which had threshed fields across the globe made more mistakes in 80 minutes than they had since embarking upon their record-equalling 17-match sequence way back in Pretoria on 23 August 1997.

Nothing should detract from England's mighty victory, but the self-destruction of the South Africans diced the sporting emotions. Patriotic overtones apart, there is little joy in watching the humiliation of a potentially great side. Though the score said otherwise, it was a humiliation. Only brief glimpses of the incisive running, the thunderous tackling, the imagination or the organisation survived a chaotic finale. By then, South Africa had long since discarded their game plan and were digging into reserves of instinct.

One flashing move in injury time showed what might have been. While the England pack were shoving their way irresistibly towards the Springbok line, as much to waste precious seconds as to increase their slender lead, Gary Teichmann had heard the referee's whistle. An inelegantly tapped penalty set up a move of breathtaking speed and direction, halted only by the outstretched hand of Dan Luger. But all vestige of order had vanished and, for once, the Springboks could find no coherent answer to England's relentless pressure.

This morning, defeat will feel no better for a side as deeply competitive as the South Africans. The unbeaten sequence had begun to eat into their brains, sap energy from the limbs. The flamboyant American tennis player, Vitas Gerulaitis, the constant fall-guy for Jimmy Connors used to fortify himself with the phrase: "No one ever beats me 18 times in a row." In rugby, no one can win 18 times in a row and South African faces revealed the dawning of that.

The more they tried to find some form of rhythm, to retrieve the moves and the ploys which had worked so extravagantly through the past year, the more their game retreated over the horizon. Percy Montgomery's penalty kick in the closing minutes, his first, summarised the disintegration. Faced with an eyes-closed kick from 15 yards, the South African full-back skewed the ball hopelessly wide.

Whether this marks the break-up of a champion team will be a matter of debate up and down the high veldt. What glimpses of the future emerged from the melee were fashioned by Bobby Skinstad, whose reputation as the boy wonder of South African rugby just about survived the defeat. Skinstad is seen as the model of the modern rugby player, impossibly handsome, easily marketed and as comfortable in the three-quarter line as the back row of the scrum. Skinstad's long pass, a mere flick of the wrist which took out three England players and set up Peiter Roussow for the opening try, was worthy of a veteran centre.

Mostly, he eschewed the scrapping in the front line and stationed himself as an auxiliary centre, ready for the sort of dazzling break which knocked the stuffing out of the Irish last week. But the promise never developed. For all his legendary status back home, his radio shows, his personal website, the hunky centrefolds and the Bobby Girls entourage, the likeable flanker was a peripheral presence, a mere cog to be ground and spat out by the rolling England pack.

Like his colleagues, Skinstad had begun to believe his own publicity. There will be plenty of other days. Anyway, another sequence will begin in the New Year and, who knows, might take in the defence of their world championship in Wales next autumn. "We missed the opportunity of a lifetime," said Teichmann, the Springbok captain. Yesterday the South Africans forgot how to lose; and you can't really blame them. After all, it has been a long time.

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