When the opposition turn up with an almost wholly negative game plan and pack their side with raw-boned enforcers, the match is unlikely to be a classic. For a team coached by a man who less than a year ago seriously considered the ploy of not kicking throughout the entire 80-minute period, this was a ponderous South African performance here at Twickenham.
They were awkward and physical, but with the ball in hand they offered little until the dying minutes. Not only that – they kicked aimlessly and seemed to be attempting to corner the market in head-high tackles.
As a result England struggled to get their game going. The basics were put under pressure by a fired-up Springbok pack who had the better of the early scrummages and made a right mess of the England throw-ins. Given that the men in white also seemed averse to collecting the restart, it was no surprise it was so tight at half-time.
And yet you always had the feeling that England had the South Africans' measure. All the hallmarks of their recent performance against Australia were in place, but the finishing was somewhat lacking. Numerous overlaps were wasted, but with Kyran Bracken as sharp as a tack at scrum- half and Jason Robinson always a threat, the English always looked likely winners.
Mike Catt and Jonny Wilkinson kicked a little more for territory throughout the second period and the pressure on the Springboks increased remorselessly. Some observers might make much of the fact that until Dan Luger's late interception there were no tries. Such analysis completely misses the point. Rugby is all about territory, pressure and possession – if you have enough of each you will score. It doesn't matter how. Wilkinson's seventh penalty was a case in point. It had been preceded by a quite wonderful run-back by Robinson. South Africa were stretched and as a result conceded a penalty – that is what it is like at the highest level. You take your points when you can.
There were still any number of passages of play with excellent interplay between backs and forwards. Well, at least there were from England; the southern hemisphere boys seemed to be obsessed with kicking the ball up in the air and running after it. (And, yes, I have waited a good few years to write those last two sentences).
On top of their patchy, yet always ambitious, attacking play, there was the small matter of England's absolutely outstanding defence. When the South Africans did actually take the ball up and give England something to tackle, they responded magnificently. Again such play led directly to scores – with a double tackle on Conrad Jantjes by Luger and Will Greenwood being a particular favourite. Hindered by their own limited game plan, the South Africans were made to look tentative and hurried by the English defence.
On a day when England posted their record winning margin in the history of the fixture we should ignore the early rustiness in their set-piece play and certainly not decry the lack of five-pointers.
Halfway through the second half you could feel a real confidence sweep round the stadium. For the first time in a long, long while England were cruising to victory over southern hemisphere opposition. They looked calm, comfortable and composed. In contrast the South Africans looked bereft of ideas. Where they go from here is anyone's guess. But England can now rightfully claim a seat at the top table of world rugby.
For the first time since the Seventies a European team are playing a brand and style of rugby that looks beyond the scope of most of their rivals. Not for a generation have we been able to escape the nagging feeling that we were following trends and developments established elsewhere. Now Clive Woodward's men are establishing a benchmark – it is too early, and probably pointless, to debate whether or not they are the best side in the world at the moment.
What can be said with confidence is that nobody else is playing quite like them. And that is something in which we can all take pride.Reuse content