A couple of escalators outside Twickenham seized up a few minutes before kick-off and England suffered a similar breakdown in their upward progression. South Africa's muscularly indomitable Springboks blew the composure of Lewis Moody's side to smithereens, and but for Ben Foden's late interception there might have been a few boos welling in HQ's voiceboxes. This was South Africa's seventh straight win over England.
The 10-point defeat replicated England's first result of the autumn, against the All Blacks, to create sobering bookends either side of the wins over Australia and Samoa. It was the last chance to get one up on the southern hemisphere heavyweights before the World Cup; the eight matches England have before the global set-to in New Zealand next September will be against Six Nations opposition.
England were fragile, undermined by forces of physics as familiar to Martin Johnson as Isaac Newton. Whereas the Australians had played fast and loose, encouraging the English second rows, Courtney Lawes and Tom Palmer, into exciting dynamism, the South Africans stifled all that at source. The world champions were missing nine top-line players and had blown their Grand Slam bid in Scotland but they showed no fear at close quarters and handled England expertly out wide. Schalk Burger, John Smit and Heinrich Brussow were among the absentees; still their pack was strong enough to make monkeys of anyone who thought this would be a walk in the safari park for England.
England were penalised too often in the first half: three scrums gave the visitors two free-kicks and a penalty; later Lawes was pinged for diving over a tackle and Moody and Palmer for going in at the side of a ruck. "Physicality gives me goose bumps," Bakkies Botha – one half of a South African second row as gnarled as the Lawes-Palmer combo is newly formed – had said. The toll was heavier than a winter gas bill. Tom Croft, England's rangiest forward, and Toby Flood, the fly-half, went off before the interval – Flood with a bang on the head and Croft to hospital for a shoulder X-ray. Dan Cole, the prop, stayed on but was flexing his neck gingerly. The referee, George Clancy, wanted the wing Chris Ashton removed after a clash of heads. "He was nearly asleep there," Clancy said, after Ashton's head hit Victor Matfield's hip, shortly after Flood's penalty had given England a fifth-minute lead. England's medics decided otherwise but Ashton hardly had a run thereafter.
Morne Steyn, South Africa's fly-half, and Flood made it 6-3 to England before two penalties, short and long, hit the post, from Steyn and his namesake François. That helped keep England level at half-time but they also needed dramatic defensive work. On 20 minutes South Africa attacked off a scrum, Bismarck du Plessis was held and though Matfield got within stretching distance of a try, he was unable to shift his elbows quickly enough and Ben Youngs plunged in to knock the ball to the safety of Shontayne Hape grounding it. These were arguably Youngs' and Hape's happiest moments and 12 minutes later Pierre Spies needed to be cut down by Foden, who tracked the No 8 and tackled him into touch.
The loss of Flood and Croft affected England – too much, Johnson said afterwards – and their set piece. Lawes had the ball nicked from him by Matfield at a shortened line-out, followed by Morne Steyn's second and third penalties either side of half-time. Willem Alberts, the Natal flanker who had scored from the bench against Wales and Scotland, completed a remarkable hat-trick after 58 minutes. From Matfield's line-out catch, a scissors move between Morne Steyn and Gio Aplon was held but Spies' pass allowed Alberts to outstrip Youngs at the corner; 14-6 to South Africa.
England's big chance arrived in the 65th minute. Mike Tindall was driven by a couple of team-mates to within a metre and the ball went left to Lawes in midfield. But Jean de Villiers, gambled and won with a race out of the line to spoil Lawes's pass. Hape conceded a penalty off his feet after 68 minutes and within a few seconds Ruan Pienaar picked out Lwazi Mvovo on the short side of a ruck; the left wing nipped between Ashton, Dylan Hartley and Simon Shaw and into clear water. Morne Steyn converted.
Cole's replacement, Dave Wilson, and Palmer were embarrassed by forced passes gone wrong, though many a team-mate had done something similar. Alberts' hammering tackle on Mark Cueto, who had been an occasional threat, would have been an apt footnote but Foden had a different idea, picking off CJ van der Linde's pass for a 75-metre run-in.
Tindall's drop-kicked conversion hit the bar – and England's deflated supporters wasted little time doing the same.
Ben Foden 6/10
Got away with an utter howler close to his line in the first half – redeemed himself a bit with his hit on Spies and his late consolation interception try.
Mark Cueto 7/10
Very busy, suggesting that he might make something happen. He didn't, in the end, but he has had a strong autumn run. Found himself covered in blood from a cut to the head, which was a kind of badge of honour.
Mike Tindall 6/10
The rush defence started off very well but by the time the centre was about five furlongs offside for the penalty for 9-6 it was going, visibly, very wrong indeed. His missed drop-goal conversion didn't matter. Fortunately.
Shontayne Hape 6/10
One of a few players to start quite brightly but then find himself pulled back into the morass.
Chris Ashton 5/10
Took a wallop of his own when trying to wallop Matfield early on and seemed rather quiet afterwards, in comparison with Cueto. Might have expected to lay a hand on Mvovo for the second try.
Toby Flood 5/10
Also took an early knock on the kind of raw afternoon when they hurt extra. After kicking two penalties from two but also knocking up a few poor restarts and aimless bunts down the middle, he retired from the fray.
Ben Youngs 5/10
Practically canonised after his display against Australia, he had a devilishly difficult time, by comparison, in this one. The odd half-hitch kick and semi-shimmy, but it wasn't really happening.
Andrew Sheridan 6/10
A difficult day at the scrum, although he gave, generally, as good as he got. Gave better than he got to Botha early on and gave away a penalty with it. Is it childish to say it was good to see him do it anyway? Probably.
Dylan Hartley 6/10
The scrum 'against the head' won by the Boks wasn't, strictly, his fault – pressure from Van der Linde on Sheridan seemed to cause it. The odd line-out loss was more at his door, but he didn't flag around the field.
Dan Cole 6/10
Had a better time of it, just about, against Mtawawira – he didn't give 'The Beast' a beasting, or even tame him temporarily, but he dogged it out as one would expect him to do. Taken off late on.
Courtney Lawes 7/10
Probably England's man of the match, for his work around the pitch as a kind of extra blindside flanker, including a fine try-saving tackle on Matfield. However, he is a lock and he isn't, yet, a source of much line-out ball. Which is kinda' 'second-rowing 101'. Needs to sit that class but this one, against a pack who were a different class, should prove valuable, if painful.
Tom Palmer 6/10
Unfortunate to be the bloke involved in the incident that summed up a frustrating afternoon, Jacobs knocking the ball from his grasp with two men free when a try might have put things back in the mix. Might have.
Tom Croft 5/10
Off injured, badly by the looks of it, after 22 minutes. Things were already looking ominous at the line-out, at which he was England's only threat to the Bokke locks. Badly missed.
Lewis Moody 6/10
Didn't lose too much in comparison with the Boks' back row but he was fighting a losing battle for most of the match. Seems to enjoy those, at least.
Nick Easter 6/10
His first five minutes suggested great things to come but, like everyone else, it was back to bashing his head against the wall after that.
Hendre Fourie On for Croft. One would suppose he would have received some fearful stick, what with his being South African and all. Played well.
Charlie Hodgson On for Flood to kick and pass well and generally seem more creative. Danny Care On for 20 minutes in place of Youngs, Sniped about.
Simon Shaw On for Lawes, who was five years old when the big Wasp toured South Africa with Will Carling's team in 1994. Crikey, etc.
David Wilson On for Cole, bustled about.
Matt Banahan On for Ashton with the game gone; you could argue he should have appeared earlier, but big, direct backs don't necessarily scare the Boks.
Steve Thompson On for Hartley very late.
Zane Kirchner 6/10
Looked quick and clever but without threatening much, in the general way of these South African backs. Went off injured early in the second half.
Gio Aplon 6/10
Not quite sure why such a small wing would ever be used on short balls back inside from the fly-half, close to the line. Even Hodgson crunched him.
Francois Steyn 6/10
Passing was, generally, as hairy as his top lip, the first half featuring a succession of wild efforts which found the ground or touch. One peach put Spies clear, though. Moved back to full-back when Kirchner went off and got on with indulging his fondness for long-range drop-goal attempts. Not his finest hour and 20, all told.
Jean de Villiers 6/10
Took one thumping from Tindall without the ball and spent most of the rest of his time on the field thumping into the England lines with it.
Lwazi Mvovo 6/10
Like Aplon, the recipient in the first half of a succession of impossible passes and unenviable asks. Scored the killer try, though, slipping between Shaw and Ashton for a nice first score in international rugby.
Morne Steyn 6/10
One relatively easy penalty missed, which was unusual; he also missed the relatively difficult conversion of Alberts' try, which was downright strange. Tactical kicking was good.
Ruan Pienaar 7/10
Kicked very well from ruck, maul and scrum – he can play as a Test fly-half, which might explain that – as part of a game plan that was based, sensibly enough, on playing to his forwards' considerable strengths. Penalised for feeding a couple of times. Unusual.
Tendai Mtawarira 6/10
Perhaps one doesn't need to continually live up to one's reputation as a fearsome scrummager when one has acquired a suitably fearsome nickname. 'The Beast' came out a shade under even against Cole, maybe, although the pack as a whole had the best of it.
Bismarck du Plessis 8/10
If, according to legend, the great England hooker Brian Moore was so intense he had 'clenched hair', this Springbok's whole game seems like one big clenched fist. Apart from the accurate line-outs and mobile-about-the-park bits, of course. Deserved to be named man of the match, and was.
Jannie du Plessis 7/10
Did his job and gave way to Van der Linde, which is what quite a lot of modern props are expected to do. Made a heavy tackle on Youngs to sniff out an early England attack. Was penalised, but it only hurt the man he hit.
Bakkies Botha 7/10
The sign of a true silent-movie villain of a player, as Botha most certainly is, is that he quite often earns penalties for his side because an opponent tries, as Sheridan did here, to get his retaliation in first. Botha isn't just a flat-track bully, however, and he got through a lot of good line-out and loose work here.
Victor Matfield 6/10
His team's line-outs were superb, of course, but he butchered a try by going himself and being tackled (very well, admittedly) by Lawes and then helped squander another by lumbering about and sticking out a hand to knock down a pass that was intended for Francois Steyn. So he loses a point.
Deon Stegmann 7/10
Part of the general bish-bashery and softening up in the first half and then gave way to Alberts early in the second. A well-timed switch that paid off handsomely. England take note.
Juan Smith 7/10
Part of the general hammering that was handed out. Has a classic Springbok way of smashing into the defence, all elbow, hip, arse and attitude, which must hurt like hell.
Pierre Spies 7/10
Might be embarrassed to have been manhandled into touch by Foden when clear, given that one of his arms is twice as wide as both the full-back's legs. Surprisingly subtle pass for Alberts' try.
Adrian Jacobs On for Kirchner.
Willem Alberts On for Stegmann, an even heavier ball carrier to hurt a team who were hurting enough already. Scored the inevitable try.
CJ van der Linde For Jannie du Plessis.
Francois Hougaard On for Aplon and then for De Villiers.
Flip van der Merwe For Botha.
Adriaan Strauss For Bismarck du Plessis.
Patrick Lambie On for Aplon.
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