Never mind the quality, which was threadbare, feel the width of a precious victory by all of two points. What England took from this was an immense sense of relief, not least for avoiding an official description of being the worst side in Red Rose history although they came close to an eighth successive defeat.
Despite this desperate victory, secured with a try by Phil Vickery of the stick-it-up-your-jumper variety seven minutes from the end, England's autumn remains a season of misses and mellow fruitlessness. It barely seemed possible that yesterday's match could be any worse than last week's débâcle against Argentina, but England almost managed it.
In the context of their losing run, were Andy Robinson, the coach, and Martin Corry, the captain, bothered by the absence of a hallmark? Of course not. "This was a huge win for us," Robinson said, "and we're looking forward to the rematch next week. We've got to build on this and take it to another level." That should not be difficult. Corry said: "When we were two scores behind we stuck at it and all credit to everyone involved. Nobody panicked and we showed great mental strength. Hopefully we've put the ghosts of Argentina to bed and proved that it was a one-off."
This was a B movie matinée between two great rugby nations, both World Cup winners, who, certainly compared to the All Blacks, find themselves on Sunset Boulevard. In terms of possession and territory, England deserved their win, but in almost every other regard Corry's men were dreadful.
The kicking out of hand was so poor it was almost comical and whatever Brian Ashton has brought to the attack is not immediately evident. For the most part the backs looked as if they had never seen each other before and it may be cruel to say so but England's performance improved, slightly, once Charlie Hodgson damaged a leg just before half-time. His stand-in, Andy Goode, is no world-beater but he does the basics well and has a good kicking game which, yesterday, was worth its weight in Krugerrands. Hodgson remains an enigma. When he is in the groove he bears comparison to Jonny Wilkinson but when he isn't he is fragile to the point of self-destruction. It makes you wonder whether he is missing the support of the kicking coach Dave Alred, who was made redundant in April. England now stand alone as a major nation without such a specialist.
After landing a penalty within the first minute following an inch-perfect drop out to start the match, Hodgson's game fell apart. His confidence is shot, a tell-tale sign being his determination to get rid of the ball as if he was dealing with a live grenade. He missed a kick at goal, threw a shocking pass to Mathew Tait and then delivered a ball which was intercepted by Jean de Villiers. The tall centre, who is not the fastest of Springboks, was only denied a try by a superb tackle from Josh Lewsey and the ruling of the video official. It was a close call. A video verdict would have been redundant had De Villiers given an inside pass to his team-mates.
Butch James and his hole-in-the-wall gang were living off scraps but another last-ditch tackle by Lewsey, this time on his opposite number Francois Steyn, saved England again. James had kicked the Boks level when Corry, with a high and late challenge on the same player, was lucky to avoid a card. Hodgson's second penalty restored the lead but then England's wayward kicking allowed South Africa to build a 13-6 half-time lead. First Lewsey's slice found Steyn, whose response was a splendid drop goal from about 50 yards, and then a pitiful clearance from Ben Cohen enabled Danie Rossouw to link with De Villiers and James down the left (Hodgson damaged his right knee tackling De Villiers and he and Andrew Sheridan, who went off with an ankle injury, will see a specialist tomorrow) and the Springbok stand-off not only touched down but added the difficult conversion.
Three minutes into the second half, James put in a delicious little defence-breaking chip and Akona Ndungane was on to it for the try. Trailing 18-6, England had to dig deep, which they did, and also needed a stroke of luck, which they received. First De Villiers was sent to the sin bin for hitting a ruck from the side - was that offence worse than Corry's on James? - and a minute later Goode went for the line. He lost possession but Mark Cueto touched down.
The Springboks almost got a third try through the impressive Steyn but they did get a penalty, which James landed in the 56th minute to leave England eight points adrift. At that point Jake White, the Boks coach who is under as much pressure as Robinson, decided to take James off. What transpired condemned South Africa to a sixth successive defeat. They have not won at Twickenham for nine years.
Goode kicked England to within five points with a penalty and in the 73rd minute Vickery burrowed over like a mole after a series of drives, Goode's conversion separating the sides.
"The most important thing," Vickery said, "is that 80,000 people went home feeling proud of their team. We've got that trust and that faith back." A B movie? As Robinson might have put it: "Am I bovvered?" When England play South Africa in the World Cup next September, they will be up against a considerably stronger outfit.Reuse content