A dead game? Not for England, who were full of life as they set about salvaging something from their Test series with South Africa in front of a 46,000 capacity audience in Port Elizabeth yesterday and were still breathing, rather more strongly than their hosts, when Owen Farrell's unlikely and majestically unsuccessful attempt at a decisive drop goal signalled the end of a hard tour. Stuart Lancaster's side deserved something for their efforts and were duly granted it.
Deprived of Chris Robshaw, their form player as well as their captain, and forced to reshuffle in the front row and at half-back because of injuries to Alex Corbisiero and Ben Youngs, the visitors went toe to toe with opponents not renowned for giving suckers an even break when a series is already won. If England could not quite emulate the 2009 British and Irish Lions by ending on a winning high, there would be no miserable last-weekend collapse like Ireland's in All Black country. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Ahead 11-9 early in the second half, they were reeled in by the outstanding Springbok wing J P Pietersen, who scored his second try in as many Tests, again in the right corner, at the end of the one truly productive South African siege of the game. But the tourists were done a considerable favour when Morne Steyn, out of synch with his goal-kicking, missed the conversion. Farrell duly levelled matters with a simple penalty nine minutes from time and when the Boks pushed for victory, they were repelled by a defence with real iron in its soul.
England might even have won it at the death when, after a long multi-phased attack, Farrell shaped to drop at goal before scurrying down the short side. Sadly for the 20-year-old outside-half, his big runners could not quite find a way of maximising the break. He was forced to return to his first-receiver's position and wait for another drop-goal opportunity. It came deep in overtime and was too far distant to stand a realistic chance of success.
After the deeply disturbing trials and tribulations of the opening quarter in Johannesburg seven days previously, England were out of the blocks quicker this time. Immeasurably quicker. The Springboks failed to deal properly with Toby Flood's kick-off, the tourists' first attacking scrum was reassuringly solid and when Manu Tuilagi and Tom Palmer made ground upfield, there was an immediate penalty award against the home side. Flood's three- pointer was of pitching-wedge distance, but it still had to be made. Make it he did.
There might have been better to come when Bismarck du Plessis conceded one of the more bone-headed penalties of the series – as a high ball ricocheted England's way, he was as offside as offside could be – but Flood had been hurt in the previous phase of play and never looked comfortable with a long, sharply angled shot at the sticks. He might have been better advised to accept Alex Goode's offer to take the kick for him.
Along with his fellow newcomer Thomas Waldrom in the back row, Goode was excellent in his first full Test, and particularly at the start: if his initial run with ball in hand was a trademark effort – into the cul-de-sac and out the other side – his aerial work was even better. When Bryan Habana laid the foundations for Steyn's equalising penalty in the seventh minute by claiming a high kick from under an English nose, that nose belonged to Chris Ashton rather than the fresh face at full-back.
With the ball increasingly slippery, there were handling errors on both sides – and judgement errors too. When Steyn hesitated before launching a clearance kick on 10 minutes, Palmer charged him down. The World Cup lock was given support by the energetic James Haskell, a second back-rower in Tom Johnson was on hand to continue the attack and although the Boks appeared to have recovered sufficiently to lift the siege, they were penalised on the floor in Danny Care range and the reinstated scrum-half duly tapped to himself and claimed a close-range try. Flood, clearly in distress, missed the conversion and was immediately withdrawn in favour of Farrell.
Steyn, who would end up being booed and catcalled by a dissatisfied home crowd, reduced the deficit to two points with a penalty after Palmer was adjudged to have done too much on the floor – a serious problem for England, who regularly found themselves on the wrong side of referee Steve Walsh. Steyn's third successful kick, for a similar offence, gave the Boks a one-point interval lead.
Yet England were both rugged and cohesive enough to redouble their efforts after the break. They even survived the sin-binning of their captain, Dylan Hartley, after yet another breakdown offence. That said something for their new-found cool-headedness under pressure and a hell of a lot for their guts.
South Africa: G Aplon (Western Province); J P Pietersen (Kwazulu-Natal), J De Villiers (Western Province, capt), W Olivier (Blue Bulls), 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), J Potgieter (Blue Bulls), M Coetzee (Kwazulu-Natal), P Spies (Blue Bulls). Replacements: R Pienaar (Ulster) for Hougaard 49; F Van der Merwe (Blue Bulls) for Etzebeth 54; R Kankowski (Kwazulu-Natal) for Potgieter 54; A Strauss (Free State) for B Du Plessis 62; W Kruger (Blue Bulls) for J Du Plessis 75.
England: A Goode (Saracens); C Ashton (Northampton), J Joseph (London Irish), M Tuilagi (Leicester), B Foden (Northampton); T Flood (Leicester), D Care (Harlequins); J Marler (Harlequins), D Hartley (Northampton, capt), D Cole (Leicester), T Palmer (Stade Francais), G Parling (Leicester), T Johnson (Exeter), J Haskell (Highlanders), T Waldrom (Leicester). Replacements: O Farrell (Saracens) for Flood 12; B Barritt (Saracens) for Farrell 26-34; L Mears (Bath) for Johnson 54-60; Barritt for Joseph 62; M Botha (Saracens) for Palmer 66; P Dowson (Northampton) for Johnson 66.Reuse content