It is seven months since the management board of the Rugby Football Union saw fit to stab Brian Ashton between the shoulder blades by way of rewarding him for his delivery of second-place finishes in both the World Cup and the Six Nations Championship, since when England have leaked nine tries and 81 points in two Tests against New Zealand, presented the Wallabies with their biggest win in London in almost a quarter of a century and pratfalled their way to the worst Twickenham defeat in red-rose history. The last time we saw such brilliant decision-making, capitalism went bust.
Of course, Martin Johnson's team did beat the Pacific Islanders in the first round of autumn internationals, but as the All Blacks are about to come strolling into the capital with the scent of another Grand Slam in their nostrils, victory over an underfunded and poorly prepared bunch of South Seas tourists must be placed squarely in the "whoopee-doo" category. It no longer means much to Johnson, that's for sure. What matters to the manager now is the amount of damage limitation work he and his coaches can get through between now and Saturday afternoon's meeting with the scariest side in international rugby.
At least the most celebrated of England's captains drew back from what started as an attempt to suggest that the scale of this Springbok victory was not quite as it seemed. "I could stand here and say the scoreboard didn't reflect the game," Johnson remarked, after a couple of minor dabblings with the silver-lining theory of life, "but what's the point? These players are learning the brutal, harsh lessons of our sport. We won't be making wholesale changes, because these are the best people we have. There is no 50-cap cavalry coming over the hill. We have to live with it, and handle it."
When Ashton's players found themselves on the wrong end of a 36-point towelling from the South Africans during last year's World Cup in France – a game in which England took the field without an outside-half and failed to fire a shot – they handled it so effectively that four weeks later, they found themselves in the final against the same opponents, whom they duly pushed rather closer. Can Johnson even begin to hope for such a resurrection? There is no obvious reason to think so. Ashton was able to look ahead to a couple of eminently winnable fixtures against Samoa and Tonga. More importantly still, he had Jonny Wilkinson fit for both matches. Meetings with the All Blacks are never anything but eminently losable, and Johnson has had his No 10 of choice available throughout the campaign.
Sadly, Danny Cipriani suffered another rough one at the weekend. For the third time in his short international career, he conceded a soft try to a chargedown; indeed, he managed to get himself charged down on two subsequent occasions, once by a member of his own back division. He is blessed with wonderful hands, express speed and a rich rugby imagination, but his opposite number here, Ruan Pienaar, was very nearly as superior in the art of game management as Matt Giteau of Australia had been seven days previously. The next time the Marquis of Mayfair feels the urge to dish out international tickets to his mates in a West End nightclub, he might be advised to keep one back for himself.
Quite what England would have done without Tom Rees is anyone's guess. Lost by 50, probably. There were times when the Wasps flanker appeared to be making a one-man stand against the Bokke hordes, although in other phases of the contest he was able to call on some meaningful support from the Harlequins No 8 Nick Easter, who is currently playing a more dynamic game than anything he produced in keeping Lawrence Dallaglio out of the starting line-up during the World Cup. But there was precious little to be said for England's collective performance, particularly in defence. Three of the South African tries – Danie Rossouw's finish with the entire red-rose midfield on his back, Pienaar's chargedown and Jaque Fourie's pickpocketing of Paul Sackey – were embarrassing.
If the hampers and champers brigade in the stands were dumbstruck at the very thought that any team associated with Johnson could capitulate to such a degree, they recovered enough of their verbal faculties to boo the home side in the closing stages. It was not very pukka of them, but it was a better – and more honest – reaction than that of the previous week, when they booed Giteau every time he took aim at the sticks on behalf of the Wallabies.
Mind you, it would have been nice had they shown some appreciation of the Springboks, who brought all their directness and ruthlessness to the table and smashed the red-rose crockery all over Twickers. "I knew something big was happening, that England were about to face some serious problems, when we left the dressing-room for the tunnel," said their captain, the magnificent John Smit.
"Some of our senior players – Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger – had never won here. I sensed their motivation to do this thing. I must credit our coach [Peter de Villiers] for acceding to my request that we be kept fresh for this game."
None were fresher than Botha, that great brooding hulk of a lock forward who sometimes appears to be Johnson incarnate. Twice, he astonished his audience by pulling off try-saving tackles, the first of which, a 50-metre run-down of Delon Armitage as the England full-back headed for the right corner, may be the finest covering hit ever made by a Springbok lock. "There are things in this sport you can't buy, and that was one of them," Smit said. "It's strange. In the dressing room just before the game, we talked of the Danie Rossouw tackle that stopped Mark Cueto scoring in the World Cup final. Bakkies added fuel to our fire, just like Danie."
It said something for South Africa's superiority that they were able to survive two yellow cards – the first shown to the prop Tendai Mtawarira, the second to the full-back Conrad Jantjes – without conceding so much as a single point. England might have expected the Boks to miss Mtawarira, known charmingly as "the Beast", but while the big-hit merchant from Zimbabwe was parking his rear end on the bench, the likes of Smit, Botha and Rossouw redoubled their efforts in defence and ensured the door remained shut, locked and bolted.
"I'd be really down if we'd lost by that margin and not created anything, but there were some gilt-edged chances for us out there," said Johnson. Even as he spoke, he looked very much like someone who was really down. Asked whether he found it harder to lose as a player or as a manager, he thought for a second before replying: "The two things are different. But neither is very nice."
England: D Armitage (London Irish); P Sackey (Wasps), J Noon (Newcastle), R Flutey (Wasps), U Monye (Harlequins); D Cipriani (Wasps), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), L Mears (Bath), P Vickery (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), T Palmer (Wasps), J Haskell (Wasps), T Rees (Wasps), N Easter (Harlequins). Replacements: T Flood (Leicester) for Flutey 32; S Shaw (Wasps) for Palmer 34; M Stevens (Bath) for Vickery 52; D Hartley (Northampton) for Mears 60; H Ellis (Leicester) for Care 71; J Crane (Leicester) for Easter 74; T Croft (Leicester) for Rees 83.
South Africa: C Jantjes (Western Province); J P Pietersen (Sharks), A Jacobs (Sharks), J De Villiers (Western Province), B Habana (Blue Bulls); R Pienaar (Sharks), E Januarie (Western Province); T Mtawarira (Sharks), J Smit (Sharks, capt), J Du Plessis (Sharks), J Botha (Blue Bulls), V Matfield (Blue Bulls), D Rossouw (Blue Bulls), S Burger (Western Province), P Spies (Blue Bulls). Replacements: C Ralepelle (Blue Bulls) for Rossouw 35-40 and for Smit 81; J Fourie (Golden Lions) for Jacobs 60; R Kankowski (Sharks) for Rossouw 60; F Steyn (Sharks) for Pienaar 67; A Bekker (Western Province) for Botha 67; B Mujati (Western Province) for Du Plessis 72; H Brussow (Free State Cheetahs) for Spies 81.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
HQ horrors England's worst Twickenham losses
England's defeat to South Africa on Saturday was the worst they have ever experienced at Twickenham – but the home side have endured plenty of bad days over the years:
*April 1971: England 11 President's XV 28
A centenary thrashing from Brian Lochore's team, under the three-point try system.
*November 1984: England 3 Australia 19
A suitably Orwellian calamity against a great Wallaby side, led by the magical Mark Ella.
*November 1997: England 11 South Africa 29
The Springbok pack lays waste to England as the tourists win the try count four to one.
*October 1999: England 16 New Zealand 30
A closer match than the scoreline suggests, but England fall to Jonah Lomu. Again.
*November 2006: England 20 New Zealand 41
The worst day at Twickers in red-rose history – until last Saturday, that is.Reuse content