England 28 South Africa 31: England's lack of attacking ideas is more troubling than a close defeat

There are problems to solve with ten months to go until the World Cup

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The Independent Online

Looking on the bright side, England are keeping their powder dry – bone dry, drier than dust – ahead of next year’s home World Cup, the success of which depends on them emerging in one piece from the so-called Pool of Death.

By showing precisely nothing in the way of a joined-up attacking game, they are well on the way to convincing the major southern hemisphere nations that the only weapons in their armoury are a highly capable bunch of tight forwards, a stellar line-out and a tape loop of patriotic songs, of which “Land of Hope and Glory” is probably the least jingoistic.

Sadly, there is also a flipside. If it turns out England are not bluffing – that they really are as bereft in the ideas department as they appeared in losing 31-28 to the Springboks at Twickenham – there will be every chance of Chris Robshaw and company declaring themselves available for club rugby well before the end of a global tournament unfolding on their own doorsteps. If that prospect doesn’t concentrate a few minds in Red Rose Towers, nothing will.

By ideas, we are not talking about “fairytale rugby”, as the fabled Lions captain Willie John McBride used to call it: there is no place in modern-day union for fanciful notions of pinging pretty passes from one wing to the other in search of some non-existent fracture in the opposition defensive wall, or asking every English back to side-step like Phil Bennett circa 1973. We are talking about a direct, dynamic, intelligently thought-through approach to maximising possession.

 

There will, as sure as eggs are eggs, be an over-reaction to this three-point defeat, which was, after all, inflicted by the world’s second-ranked team – a team in full warpaint following their pratfall in Dublin seven days previously. Heaven knows, England have suffered greater hidings, many of them bordering on the catastrophic, at the hands of the Springboks down the years.

Yet for every step forward taken by Robshaw and his pack – there were some very decent contributions from the loose-head prop Joe Marler and the lock Courtney Lawes in this game, not to mention an energetic display from the hooker Dylan Hartley that might have amounted to something really significant but for a jaw-droppingly stupid assault on the prone figure of Duane Vermeulen that brought things to a premature end – there are half a dozen fresh reasons to wonder whether anyone in the England set-up has a clear idea of what the heck is meant to be happening between Nos 9 and 15.

Danny Care and Owen Farrell were miles off the pace set by the Springbok half-backs, Cobus Reinach and Pat Lambie – not just in rugby skill, but in rugby intellect. When Care presented Jan Serfontein with the opening try towards the end of the opening quarter by throwing a pass so slow that a tectonic plate might have intercepted it, he was already being outpointed by his rival in the scrum-half contest. When Farrell, who does not look anything like fit, dropped the inexperienced wing Anthony Watson in six feet of manure with an ill-judged run out of defence, it was impossible to imagine Lambie committing such a sin.

And then there was the midfield, a conundrum these England coaches are no closer to solving now than they were in 2012 – or any of their predecessors were in the long years after Will Greenwood’s international retirement in 2004. Yes, Kyle Eastmond flummoxed a couple of Springboks with an early run into the opposition red zone; yes, Brad Barritt tackled his heart out and had enough in the tank to claim a late score in the right corner that allowed England to level the try count. But in terms of shape, structure and strategy, this centre partnership is not at the races.

It was Tom Wood, the abrasive blind-side flanker who delivered far more against the South Africans than he had against the All Blacks, who told it how it was.

“We talked all week about not being caught meandering in the middle third of the field,” he said. “It’s all very well having the ball, but if you’re not doing anything with it...

“We should have put it behind them a bit more, put them under pressure. The Boks did certain things very well, especially when it came to sending up the high balls. We had a plan too, but didn’t execute it.

“So it’s a case of us looking in the mirror before we look out of the window, so to speak. I wouldn’t say we’re on suicide watch, but we have to start putting ourselves in the right areas of the pitch, keeping our shape and managing the big moments. We’re frustrated, for sure, but it’s not about playing on hurt and anger. Emotion will always have its place in rugby, but we need to play with planning and structure. And we have to stay tight, because we know the heat is coming on from the rugby public.”

If Wood is never less than honest, the same might be said for the Springbok captain Jean de Villiers, who, without criticising England directly, said enough in respect of his own side to leave the red-rose hierarchy grappling with some extremely difficult issues. “I felt we were always in control of the game, even though we didn’t have the ball for long spells,” the centre remarked. “It came down to what we did with the ball when we did have it. You have to get your X-factor guys into the game.”

The tourists did precisely that in the seconds following the interval, when Lambie slid the most delicious chip off the outside of his right boot into an acre of space in the England danger area – space that was instantly occupied by the full-back Willie le Roux, whose equally inspired  off-load gave Reinach the try he so richly deserved. Here were X-factor players, playing X-factor rugby. And there was the difference.

What England offered in response was a driving maul, and a very good driving maul it was too. Even if Victor Matfield, the Springbok lock, had been on the field rather than in the cooler, he might not have found a way of slowing the surge sufficiently to prevent David Wilson and Ben Morgan levelling the contest.

Yet no sooner had Morgan drawn breath than the heroically committed Schalk Burger responded in the self-same fashion, which said everything about the state of the nations. South Africa can match England everywhere... and then do a whole lot more. Ten months shy of a World Cup, it is a worrying thought.

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