England 14 South Africa 25: Boks give lesson in basics to deprive Robinson of hope

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The last time a Springbok outside-half dropped goals for fun against the land of hope and glory, England disappeared from a World Cup and Clive Woodward found himself within a gnat's crotchet of losing his job as head coach. It may soon be a matter of record that Andre Pretorius caused even greater damage at Twickenham on Saturday than Jannie de Beer did in Paris in 1999. By squaring the two-match series with a victory far more decisive than the 11-point margin indicated, the South Africans dealt the blow that finally left Andy Robinson on the seat of his pants. Hope? There ain't none. Glory? That's a laugh.

England failed crucial examinations in virtually every rugby discipline at the weekend, and failed them miserably. For the most part, they were held at the scrum, badly beaten at the line-out, left for dead in the loose exchanges, over-matched at half-back and stretched to snapping point in the running game. They were outkicked, out-thought and outmanoeuvred. So much for the theory that their narrow win over the same opposition seven days previously would prove a cathartic experience. The players did not move "up a level", as Robinson hoped. They went down two, and took their head coach with them.

South Africa entered the fray armed with no more than half a dozen first-choice names, yet after 25 minutes or so of English competitiveness, it became blindingly obvious that at least 10 of the tourists' starting combination would win their individual contests. And so it came to pass. The world champions simply did not have a Francois Steyn or a Jean de Villiers, a Ricky Januarie or a John Smit or a Danie Rossouw. They certainly did not possess a back-row forward as capable or as hostile as the magnificent Juan Smith. Can all this really be laid at Robinson's door? Unless England find some players better suited to the big occasion, they could resurrect Carwyn James himself and still lose more than they win.

At the end of last season's autumn series, during which Australia and Samoa were marmalised and New Zealand were tested to the limit of their endurance, England looked set fair for a strong showing at the 2007 World Cup. How, then, did it come to this? Robinson would point unhesitatingly towards breakdowns in player management, resulting either in injury or in loss of form, and he would have an argument. Only seven of the side that took the All Blacks to the wire in 2005 started against the Boks on Saturday, two of them in different positions; the New Zealanders, by contrast, have remained together en bloc, with the single exception of Tana Umaga, who retired at the end of the tour with a Grand Slam to his name.

A handful of misguided selections aside, not least in Wallaby country last summer when the likes of Olly Barkley were messed around to an unforgivable degree, Robinson is as much a victim of circumstance as of his own shortcomings. He did not ask the likes of Steve Thompson, the most potent hooker in the game in 2003, and Ben Kay, so effective in the World Cup-winning boilerhouse, to fall to pieces; it was not his idea that so many of his most influential players - Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Stevens, Steve Borthwick and, most recently, Andrew Sheridan and Charlie Hodgson - should suffer calamitous injuries of the long-term variety. Perhaps he will be sacked for being unlucky, which is as unlucky as it gets.

Not that there was much in the way of misfortune about England's eighth defeat in nine outings. They strung together sufficient snippets of coherent rugby in the initial stages to open up a 14-3 lead, Andy Goode kicking three penalties from a variety of angles and distances and Mark Cueto claiming a poacher's try for the second time in a week, albeit one of questionable legitimacy. In theory, this advantage should have been decisive. In practice, it was an illusion.

Restarting the game after Cueto's intervention, Pretorius sent a long drop-out in the direction of Pat Sanderson, who fumbled the catch despite being in the rugby equivalent of utter solitude. Pretorius kicked the penalty inevitably conceded in the ensuing chaos, then banged over another from long range after Tom Palmer upended Johann Muller for no apparent reason. When Januarie, a bag of ferrets in human form, orchestrated a fine try for the unusually substantial prop C J van der Linde six minutes into first-half stoppage time, the game had been transformed. England would not score again, while Pretorius would have himself a ball collecting De Beerish three-pointers whenever his side put him within range. Diamonds indeed.

"What is it about those 10 minutes before the break?" Robinson asked with a bewildered shake of the head. "In each of these four Tests, it's been the same story. I accept that we ended up being outplayed in the back row, that their midfield runners finished the game playing a more direct and more effective brand of rugby. But this wasn't the story in the first half-hour, was it? We made bad individual errors in that crucial period running into the interval and we need to find out why, because those mistakes allowed the Springboks to find their rhythm and dictate the tempo of the match. When that happens at international level, it means trouble."

Very true. Try as they might - and there was no shortage of effort from the Phil Vickerys and Jamie Noons - there was not the slightest suggestion that England's principal decision-makers would plot a route through the minefield they had created for themselves. Lee Mears did manage to scramble to within inches of the Bokke line after a clever routine at the front of an attacking line-out; Cueto did go close to a second score after putting himself on the end of one of Goode's flighted kicks to the corner. But by and large, the tourists were untroubled by the questions put to them by their hosts. To beat the All Blacks, a team needs a degree in everything. To beat this England team, a mastery of Janet and John is comfortably sufficient.

For Jake White, the Springbok coach whose position remains every bit as vulnerable as Robinson's, this unexpected triumph made his scheduled appearance before the presidents' council of the South African Rugby Football Union on Wednesday a more enticing prospect than it might have been.

"To come here with an inexperienced side and defeat England at Twickenham for the first time since 1997 is a huge positive for us," he said. "That was our best performance away from home in a long time." The word among the travelling chroniclers of the game was that it may have saved White from ritual sacrifice on the altar of Springbok rugby politics.

Robinson was asked, predictably enough, whether he might be considering self-sacrifice, to which he responded as he always responds. Sadly for him, it is no longer his decision. In the unlikely event of his making it to the World Cup, he will run into a Springbok side featuring the best of Saturday's team plus Os du Randt, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield and Schalk Burger. All things considered, even he might ponder the wisdom of quitting while he is behind.

England: J Lewsey (Wasps); M Cueto (Sale), M Tait (Newcastle), J Noon (Newcastle), B Cohen (Northampton); A Goode (Leicester), P Richards (Gloucester); P Vickery (Wasps), L Mears (Bath), J White (Leicester), T Palmer (Wasps), C Jones (Sale), J Worsley (Wasps), P Sanderson (Worcester), M Corry (Leicester, capt). Replacements: S Perry (Bristol) for Richards, 50; B Kay (Leicester) for Palmer, 50; L Moody (Leicester) for Sanderson, 50; G Chuter (Leicester)

for Mears, 70; T Flood (Newcastle) for Goode, 80.

South Africa: F Steyn (Sharks); A Ndungane (Blue Bulls), W Olivier (Blue Bulls), J de Villiers (Western Province), B Habana (Blue Bulls); A Pretorius (Lions), E Januarie (Lions); C J van der Linde (Cheetahs), J Smit (Sharks, capt), B J Botha (Sharks), J Ackermann (Sharks), J Muller (Sharks), K Floors (Cheetahs), J Smith (Cheetahs), D Rossouw (Blue Bulls). Replacements: D Carstens (Sharks) for Van der Linde, 69; G Britz (Western Province) for Floors, 70; A van den Berg (Sharks) for Smith, 75; C Ralepelle (Blue Bulls) for Muller, 86.

Referee: A Lewis (Ireland)

Reviving the red rose The building blocks of a new England

Back three

Perhaps the least of England's problems, the current unit is fleet of foot, powerful in physique and defensively sound. There is, however, a lack of flair. The selectors will probably restore Iain Balshaw (pictured) when he regains full fitness, despite the brilliance of Josh Lewsey's tackling against the Springboks. If they want to see some imagination on the left wing, they could send for James Simpson-Daniel. They might also summon the quickest of them all, Tom Varndell, but he'll need some game time.

Half-backs

Scrum-half? OK. Outside-half? Er, um. Of the major countries, only New Zealand and Ireland know what they are doing at No 10. England would love to have Wilkinson available, preferably in his 2002 form, but that is as much in the lap of the gods as it is in the hands of the medics. Charlie Hodgson is an international-class playmaker, but his injury makes him an irrelevance in World Cup terms. England should either promote Toby Flood (pictured) or send for Ryan Lamb, who at least has some get-up-and-go.

Second row

Not good, not bad. There is no Martin Johnson, that's for sure, but Chris Jones and Tom Palmer showed different qualities at different times during the two games with the Springboks. The problem is that neither is a genuine tight forward. England need Steve Borthwick, the Bath captain (pictured), fit to bring some authority to the engine room. If Danny Grewcock rediscovers his best form, England may yet put together a bank of specialist locks capable of living with the best, if not completely subduing them.

England record under Robinson

2004

England 70 Canada 0 (Twickenham, 13 November)

England 32 South Africa 16 (Twickenham, 20 November)

England 19 Australia 21 (Twickenham, 27 November)

2005

Wales 11 England 9 (Cardiff, 5 February)

England 17 France 18 (Twickenham, 13 February)

Ireland 19 England 13 (Dublin, 27 February)

England 39 Italy 7 (Twickenham, 12 March)

England 43 Scotland 22 (Twickenham, 19 March)

England 26 Australia 16 (Twickenham, 12 November)

England 19 New Zealand 23 (Twickenham, 19 November)

England 40 Samoa 3 (Twickenham, 26 November)

2006

England 47 Wales 13 (Twickenham, 4 February)

Italy 16 England 31 (Rome, 11 February)

Scotland 18 England 12 (Edinburgh, 25 February)

France 31 England 6 (Paris, 12 March)

England 24 Ireland 28 (Twickenham, 18 March)

Australia 34 England 3 (Sydney, 11 June)

Australia 43 England 18 (Melbourne, 17 June)

England 20 New Zealand 41 (Twickenham, 5 November)

England 18 Argentina 25 (Twickenham, 11 November)

England 23 South Africa 21 (Twickenham, 18 November)

England 14 South Africa 25 (Twickenham, 25 November)

PLAYED 22, WON 9, LOST 13

AT TWICKENHAM: Played 15, won 8, lost 7.

AWAY RECORD: Played 7, won 1, lost 6.

POINTS SCORED: 506 (average 25.3 per game).

POINTS CONCEDED: 405 (average 20.25 per game).

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