England 23 South Africa 21: England's win fails to cover the cracks in Robinson regime

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The Independent Online

Sometimes, the "bigger" picture obscures the real one to the point of rendering it invisible, and it is happening as we speak. Twice over. Had the chattering classes of the union game, obsessed with Andy Robinson's position as England's head coach and tying themselves in knicker-twisting knots over Jake White's future with the Springboks, been granted their way, there would not have been a team contest of any description at the weekend, let alone one of the great sewer-rat struggles in modern rugby history. They would have erected a prize ring in the Twickenham car park and let the two men beat each other to horizontal pulps.

By the same yardstick, the English sporting public can only hope and pray that Robinson is not as happy with his side's performance now as he was on Saturday night. Heaven knows, the man was entitled to raise a glass, having tasted victory for the first time since the Six Nations trip to Rome back in February. (Nine-month gestation periods are not exactly unheard of in the field of human affairs, but when a team carries the title of world champions, people tend to expect something just a little more rapid in terms of delivery). The coach did indeed enjoy his moments of blessed relief, but in doing so he spun the quality of the display so hard that Shane Warne himself would have struggled to match him.

One look at the thundercloud inhabiting the space where Brian Ashton's face used to be told the true story. England's attack specialist spent the evening contemplating 80 minutes of utter purgatory, during which one of the least experienced Springbok back divisions ever to visit these shores manufactured two tries of considerable calibre while England's piano-players struck more wrong notes in 80 minutes than Les Dawson managed in an entire career. The alert Mark Cueto did dap the ball over the Springbok line after Peter Richards and Andy Goode had invented new ways of failing to do it for him; Phil Vickery did score a piano-shifter's try from all of three feet after a series of pick-and-drives lasting very nearly as long as the Roman Empire. But that was it. Exhilarating? Er, not quite.

While Robinson was waxing lyrical about character and passion, of trust and togetherness and turning points, Ashton bore the expression of a man who had just been gazumped. "There was a massive amount of character on show out there," he conceded, "but I'll be looking very closely at the way we played." Or rather, failed to play. He will not like the things he sees, that's for sure. After an energetic start - predictable enough, given the humiliations heaped on Martin Corry and company after the capitulation to the Argentines seven days previously - England were comprehensively outperformed for more than half an hour before Vickery arrived to twist the tourists' tails.

The Boks could, should, have been over the hills and far away by then. Josh Lewsey made four try-saving tackles at full-back - two on his impressive opposite number Francois Steyn, one on Akona Ndungane, an absolute blinder on Jean de Villiers - and had his impersonation of Matthew Perry been any less uncanny, England would certainly have lost an eighth successive game for the first time in - gulp - 135 years. The fact that the Twickenham crowd booed Lewsey for a fluffed touch-kick said more about them than it did about their intended victim. The poor man must have felt like Churchill after the 1945 election.

Even Lewsey could not prevent the Boks opening up an 18-6 lead in the third quarter - Butch James, who played magnificently on one good leg, had already scored a high-class try of his own when he slid the gentlest of grubber-kicks down the right touch-line for Ndungane's score - and had Andrew Sheridan not pranged an ankle, there is no knowing how far into the pit of despond England might have descended. As it was, Vickery came trundling on as the Sale prop was being carried off. Suddenly, there was a new belligerence about the red rose pack. For the final 30 minutes, they were all over their opponents like a rash.

"I feared the penny would eventually drop with England," admitted White. "They were much more direct in that final part of the match and they asked questions most of our forwards hadn't been asked before." The Springbok coach had suggested during the preamble that the world champions might usefully revert to "what works for them as a rugby nation" - that is to say, an intensive forward effort based around strong scrummaging, a solid line-out and a mean-minded driving game. Sure enough, with Vickery in bullying mood and the outstanding Tom Palmer providing torrents of ball off the top of the line-out, there were moments when it seemed Martin Johnson himself had taken charge of proceedings.

But they were only moments, born of a fortuitous substitution. Much of England's strategy failed to bear fruit - certainly, there was nothing of the attacking dynamism they had displayed in a losing cause against the All Blacks in the first of the autumn internationals - and there is an obvious tension between the forward-oriented game the players know they can handle and the more challenging style associated with the ever-imaginative Ashton. While there may be a happy confluence of tactical opinion at some point before next year's World Cup, it is unlikely to occur in time for this weekend's second meeting with the Springboks.

On the evidence of Saturday's utterly absorbing encounter, ruinously flawed and richly entertaining in equal measure, there is no guarantee of a follow-up victory. Robinson himself used the word "awful" to describe his side's kicking game - "Just in case you're wondering, the idea was to kick the ball off the field, not kick it back to the Boks and give them free attacks," he said - and after due reflection, he will not perform celebratory cartwheels in respect of the basic task of giving and taking a pass. For all their inexperience, the tourists were far more comfortable in possession. It takes some believing, but James was the most creative player on either side.

Robinson deserved the even break he received here, for he is nothing like the sucker his critics consider him to be. There again, he must surely appreciate the need for something better in five days' time. South Africa left the ground on Saturday night in the knowledge that a potential world-beater had been unveiled in the shape of Steyn.

"He played on the wing in Dublin last week and at full-back today," White said. "He'll probably be captain next week. In fact, I could stick him on the bench and he'd still be man of the match."

England, on the other hand, unearthed yet another lock forward. "Tom has been on the fringes of this team for a long time," Robinson said of Palmer. "Today, he stood up and took his opportunity." Agreed. But next year's World Cup is a rugby tournament, not a line-out competition. England need more, much more. And they need it quickly.

England: J Lewsey (Wasps); M Cueto (Sale), M Tait, J Noon (both Newcastle), B Cohen (Northampton); C Hodgson (Sale), P Richards (Gloucester); A Sheridan (Sale), G Chuter , J White (both Leicester), T Palmer (Wasps), B Kay (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), P Sanderson (Worcester), M Corry (Leicester, capt). Replacements: A Goode (Leicester) for Hodgson, 40; P Vickery (Gloucester) for Sheridan, 50; L Mears (Bath) for Chuter, 61; C Jones (Sale) for Kay, 61; L Moody (Leicester) for Sanderson, 61; S Perry (Bristol) for Richards, 73.

South Africa: F Steyn (Sharks); A Ndungane, W Olivier (both Bulls), J de Villiers (Western Province), B Habana (Bulls); A James (Sharks), E Januarie (Lions); CJ van der Linde (Cheetahs), J Smit (capt), BJ Botha, J Ackermann, J Muller (all Sharks), P Spies, D Rossouw, J Cronje (all Bulls). Replacements: D Carstens (Sharks) for Van der Linde, 22-33 & 73; A Pretorius for De Villiers, 39-40 & for James, 60; H Lobberts (Bulls) for Cronje, 40; R Pienaar (Sharks) for Januarie, 78; A van den Bergh (Sharks) for Ackermann, 80.

Referee: S Walsh (New Zealand).

The run consigned to history

England's seven-game losing sequence before Saturday:

* 25 February v Scotland (Murrayfield) 12-18

* 12 March v France (Stade de France) 6-31

* 18 March v Ireland (Twickenham) 24-28

* 11 June v Australia, (Telstra Stadium, Sydney) 3-34

* 17 June v Australia (Telstra Dome, Melbourne) 18-43

* 5 Nov v New Zealand (Twickenham) 20-41

* 11 November v Argentina (Twickenham) 18-25

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