England's size-obsession shown to be big mistake

England 11 South Africa 21

England have been selecting on size all autumn. Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall are considered the best centres in the country primarily because they are the biggest centres in the country, while Matt Banahan is in the mix, both as a wing and as a midfielder, because he is built like a tower block, not because he is easily mistaken for a footballing genius. Here, in their last meeting with southern hemisphere opposition before next year's World Cup, the national team discovered that size alone means diddly-squat...and that the real meaning of rugby life is to be found among its unmeasurables.

"They call them Test matches for a reason," said Jannie du Plessis, the Springbok tight-head prop, as the dust slowly settled on a tumultuous contest at Twickenham – a game the supposedly beleaguered tourists would have won 28-6 had the speaker's understudy, C J van der Linde, not demonstrated why he became a prop in the first place by butchering a three-man overlap so comprehensively that he created an interception score for the England full-back Ben Foden. "They are meant to be tests of strength, of character, of endurance. That is how we approached this game, and that is what it became."

There was no arguing with him: for one thing, arguments with Springbok front-rowers rarely end well for the other bloke; for another, he was born in a place called Bethlehem, and should therefore know a good deal about the things that matter. He might have added some further virtues to his list: ruthlessness, clarity of thought and brazen defiance spring to mind. It is here, amid the intangibles of top-level sport, that the gap between England and the serious contenders for the Webb Ellis Trophy has been most brutally exposed, and the man who did most of the exposing on Saturday was Victor Matfield.

The game was a mere seven minutes old when the tourists' captain was hit amidships by the England wing Chris Ashton – a collision that left Matfield nursing a busted rib and Ashton in possession of a one-way ticket to la-la land. The South African, by common consent the finest middle-jumping lock since John Eales retired from the Australian engine room almost a decade ago, had no business remaining on the field, yet he took the cold, calculated decision to play on. Avoiding contact whenever he could but committing himself wholly to it when it was unavoidable, he somehow made it through to the end, thereby sparing his countrymen the troublesome task of replacing the barely replaceable.

Ashton also played on, but there, the similarity ended. Judging by the way he fell to the ground on impact, he suffered a brief loss of consciousness; judging by the way he performed thereafter, at least part of him stayed away with the fairies. George Clancy, the referee, wanted him substituted – "He's almost asleep," he said during the Northampton player's prolonged treatment – but the England medics thought otherwise. The first thing Ashton did on resuming his position was totter around like Bambi after a night on the sauce. He then took leave of what was left of his senses, rushing out of the defensive line so prematurely that had Lwazi Mvovo not dropped a floated pass from Francois Steyn, he would have jogged in for the simplest of tries. Finally, deep in the final quarter, Ashton missed a straightforward tackle on Mvovo, and this time, the young wing from Umtata made no mistake.

Martin Johnson, the England manager, was unrepentant. "The medics said Chris was good to go, and they don't take risks," he said. But on the basis that you don't have to be a climatologist to work out that Iceland is a little on the chilly side, those among the 80,793 crowd with eyes to see did not need a surgeon's training to tell them that Ashton was far from right. While Matfield's continuing presence said everything that needed saying about South Africa's intensity, the decision to stick with Ashton smacked of English desperation.

Johnson was far more convincing in his general summary of events. "It's frustrating, annoying...it rankles a bit," he confessed. "We made mistakes all over the field, and if you don't do the fundamentals well enough, you don't give yourselves a chance to win. Maybe we didn't get the breaks, the bounce of the ball, and yes, we lost a couple of our key players quite early in the game, but we should have handled it. There are always things to overcome when you're playing the best sides; you have to react and adapt. We didn't do that, and it's disappointing."

South Africa pressurised England at the line-out, but the home side could point to the departure of the spring-heeled Tom Croft, who was smithereened – or rather, Juan Smith-ereened – under his own sticks just before the half-hour. (He is some player, this Smith. Nick Mallett, the former South Africa coach now in charge of Italy, credits him with being a "very special Springbok" while Rassie Erasmus, no mean flanker himself, characterised him as "fearless and free of ego".) The tourists also shaded the scrums but it was far from one-way traffic, and with Andrew Sheridan stringing performances together for the first time since the 2007 World Cup, there is little to concern them at the set-piece.

What issues there are run deeper. For all their size, they are not as physically imposing as they like to think: the Boks, never backwards in coming forwards when it comes to confrontation, won all the one-on-one scraps that mattered. And when it comes to execution, there is something distinctly second division about them. The tourists were not at their best when it came to finishing on Saturday – the 6-6 interval scoreline had as much to do with South African profligacy as with heart-on-the-sleeve English defence – but when the crucial moment was there to be seized at the end of the third quarter, Willem Alberts' try in the right corner was brilliantly realised. By that measure, the hosts were not in the same league.

Keen to end a 50-50 autumn series on a positive note, Johnson said: "I think we have a team now. We know our best players, some of them are very young, and whatever happens on the field from now on, they'll be the better for it." But come next year, the Boks will be better too, having reacquainted themselves with most of the dozen or so front-line players who were unavailable for this match. It is a chastening thought.

Scorers: England: Try Foden; Penalties: Flood 2. South Africa: Tries Alberts, Mvovo; Conversion M Steyn; Penalties M Steyn 3.

England: B Foden (Northampton); C Ashton (Northampton; M Banahan, Bath, 75), M Tindall (Gloucester), S Hape (Bath), M Cueto (Sale); T Flood (Leicester; C Hodgson, Sale, 39), B Youngs (Leicester; D Care, Harlequins, 63); A Sheridan (Sale), D Hartley (Northampton; S Thompson, Leeds, 75), D Cole (Leicester; D Wilson, Bath, 70), C Lawes (Northampton; S Shaw, Wasps, 70), T Palmer (Stade Francais), T Croft (Leicester; H Fourie, Leeds, 27), L Moody (Bath, capt), N Easter (Harlequins).

South Africa: Z Kirchner (Blue Bulls; A Jacobs, Kwazulu-Natal, 46); G Aplon (Western Province; F Hougaard, Blue Bulls, 60;), F Steyn (Racing Metro), J De Villiers (Western Province; Aplon, 70, then P Lambie, Kwazulu-Natal, 83), L Mvovo (Kwazulu-Natal); M Steyn (Blue Bulls), R Pienaar (Ulster); T Mtawarira (Kwazulu-Natal), B Du Plessis (Kwazulu-Natal; A Strauss, Free State, 83), J Du Plessis (Kwazulu-Natal; C J van der Linde, Free State, 52), B Botha (Blue Bulls; F Van der Merwe, Blue Bulls, 68), V Matfield (Blue Bulls, capt), D Stegmann (Blue Bulls; W Alberts, Kwazulu-Natal, 48), J Smith (Free State), P Spies (Blue Bulls).

Referee: G Clancy (Ireland).