England know Springbok stampede will intensify
When the England forwards coach, Graham Rowntree, used the word "cattle" to describe his team's opponents – the only laugh-out-loud moment in the funereal aftermath of a defeat every bit as painful as it was instructive – he was not far off the mark in his zoological appraisal, although David Attenborough would probably have gone for "buffalo" on account of the size, aggression and herd instinct of a South African team who, once roused, trampled all over the tourists and left them laying face down in the wet Durban turf. Buffalo are called "widowmakers" in these parts. Now we know why.
England are not yet dead meat as far as this three-Test series is concerned, but what, realistically speaking, are their chances of squaring matters at the barely penetrable Johannesburg fastness of Ellis Park, against individuals as physically powerful and emotionally charged as Jean de Villiers, Frans Steyn, Willem Alberts (pictured) and the implacable Du Plessis brothers, Bismarck and Jannie? Not great. Not great at all.
If the new Springbok head coach, Heyneke Meyer, was visibly relieved after watching his team stampede through the second half of this contest after ruminating their way through the first half of it, he was also a picture of confidence, secure in the knowledge that another week on the training field will result in a higher level of performance this coming weekend. There are precious few people in South Africa who do not expect to see quicker, crisper, more ruthless rugby from the Boks as a result of the work done over the next few days.
Yet it was just about legitimate for Dylan Hartley, the England hooker, to sound as bullish as he did an hour or so after the final whistle.
"I know it was late, but we played our best rugby when we were 22-12 down, and by finishing strongly and scoring that try at the end we made a statement," he remarked. "It was our way of saying that we're not going away. They certainly got the momentum on us after half-time, but it was as much a result of our own mistakes as anything else.
"All we've heard about is Springbok physicality, about how we're going to take some hidings. Actually, I think we put down a mark in this game."
Pie in the sky? Ellis Park will provide the answer to that one. But for the moment, Rowntree and his colleagues on the coaching staff – and, indeed, the red-rose players – are in good spirits. If it is true to say that England struggled to cope with the intensity generated by the punishingly powerful flanker Willem Alberts and the sheer brutality dished out by the Du Plessis brothers, who may have been born in a place called Bethlehem but are not obviously awash with the milk of human kindness, it can also be argued that Joe Marler, Geoff Parling, Tom Johnson and Ben Morgan understand a hell of a lot more about the nature of top-level Test rugby now than they did 48 hours ago.
Marler's international debut, one of the more eagerly awaited of recent times thanks to an array of fascinations stretching from his eye-catching appearance to his volatile temperament, would have been an unqualified success but for the three free-kicks conceded by the England front row at the scrum engagement, and it was interesting to note that when the set-piece finally disintegrated late in the game – a humiliating moment that presented Morne Steyn with the penalty that made the game safe for South Africa – the young Harlequin was off the field.
Parling ran the line-out with the kind of precision once associated with Steve Borthwick and flatly refused to buckle under the pressure applied by the hard-edged Bokke pairing of Eben Etzebeth and Juandre Kruger. Johnson? He finished second to Alberts on occasion, but fought his way through to the bitter end. Morgan? The inexperienced No 8 was as impressive as usual on the front foot, if found wanting on the back foot when the home forwards raised the temperature after the interval.
But for those 20-odd minutes at the start of the second period, England might have marked Ben Foden's try at the last knockings – a brilliant corner-flag finish given added lustre by the fact that this was his first international outing as a wing – with victory celebrations. But this is like wondering what might have happened had Jonah Lomu been five stones lighter and three seconds slower at the 1995 World Cup. The crucial minutes happened, just as Lomu happened.
Stuart Lancaster, every bit as new to South African realities as the majority of his players, knew the Boks would go after his team from the restart, especially as the finest player on the field, Bryan Habana, was returning to the left wing from the blood bin.
"When we spoke at half-time, we talked of how critical the next 10 or 15 minutes would be," said the head coach. "Unfortunately, we made a couple of critical errors that gave them good set-piece positions in our third of the field and if you do that to a side as good as South Africa, you're going to get breached."
The failure of England's exit strategy under pressure – the inability of the half-backs, Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell, to find ways out of their 22 that did not involve presenting Habana and the dangerous half-time substitute Patrick Lambie with opportunities to relaunch attacks from deep – was part of the problem. It is something that can be corrected on the training pitch. The other issue was what might be called the "physicality gap", to which there will be no easy solutions. Lancaster's forwards either have it in them to match Alberts and company on the gainline when they are at their most rampant, or they do not. If the latter is the case, there will be no levelling of the series this weekend.
South Africa's tries, the first from Morne Steyn and the second from the captain, De Villiers, were scored in pretty much the same area, and for pretty much the same reasons, within a dozen minutes of each other. Habana was involved in both build-ups and if the master wing is in similarly predatory mood at Ellis Park, the England kicking game will have to be twice as intelligent and significantly more accurate.
"When I took over as coach," Meyer said, "I said to Bryan: 'You need to start enjoying your rugby again. Your play is too conservative. With you, it's all about the X-factor'." The master wing has rediscovered his Xs, to the factor of 10. Just another thing for England to worry about as they head to the thin air of the veld.
South Africa: Tries: M Steyn, De Villiers Penalties: M Steyn 4. England: Try: Foden Penalties: Farrell 4.
South Africa: Z Kirchner (Blue Bulls); JP Pietersen (Kwazulu-Natal), J de Villiers (Western Province, capt), F Steyn (Kwazulu-Natal), B Habana (Western Province); M Steyn (Blue Bulls), F Hougaard (Blue Bulls); T Mtawarira (Kwazulu-Natal), B du Plessis (Kwazulu-Natal), J du Plessis (Kwazulu-Natal), E Etzebeth (Western Province), J Kruger (Blue Bulls), W Alberts (Kwazulu-Natal), M Coetzee (Kwazulu-Natal), P Spies (Blue Bulls). Replacements: W Olivier (Blue Bulls) for Habana 31-40; P Lambie (Kwazulu-Natal) for Kirchner, 40; C Oosthuizen (Free State) for J du Plessis, 48-58; R Pienaar (Ulster) for Hougaard, 56; F van der Merwe (Blue Bulls) for Etzebeth, 58; A Strauss (Free State) for B du Plessis, 65; K Daniel (K-Natal) for Coetzee, 72.
England: M Brown (Harlequins); C Ashton (Northampton), M Tuilagi (Leicester), B Barritt (Saracens), B Foden (Northampton); O Farrell (Saracens), B Youngs (Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), M Botha (Saracens), G Parling (Leicester), T Johnson (Exeter), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Morgan (Scarlets). Replacements: T Flood (Leicester) for Barritt, 53; T Palmer (Stade Français) for Botha, 58; P Dowson (Northampton) for Morgan, 61; L Dickson (Northampton) for Youngs, 72; P Doran-Jones (Northampton) for Marler, 72; L Mears (Bath) for Hartley, 75; J Joseph (London Irish) for Brown, 78.
Referee: S Walsh (Australia).
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