Something is very rotten in the state of the old cabbage patch which, more than 100 years ago, was turned from an allotment into a rugby citadel. Yesterday leaks appeared all over the place as South Africa inflicted the heaviest defeat in Red Rose history.
For Martin Johnson, the England manager, 22 November has been the sweetest and the most bitter of dates. On that day in 2003 he lifted the World Cup in Australia; five years on the talismanic Johnson – controversiallyinstalled, without any coaching experience, as England's successor to Brian Ashton – tried to explain a truly embarrassing performance.
Can it get any worse? Unfortun-ately it can, for New Zealand will be here next Saturday, and that doesn't really bear thinking about. "We're all desolate about it," Johnson said. "Playing the All Blacks is the game we've got and we will have to play our hearts out. We've learnt a brutal lesson and we've got to pack it all in or come back next week. We've got to take this on the chin and bounce back."
They certainly took it on the chin yesterday after failing to bounce back from a dispiriting defeat by Australia. Apart from minor tinkering, Johnson kept faith with that team, and little good it did him. He fielded, initially, eight players from Wasps (another record), and theclub are going through a wretched season. He has yet to learn the art of holding his hands up, but that is something he has never done.
South Africa, who had struggled to beat Wales and Scotland, ran riot, scoring five tries to nil. After Danny Cipriani conceded a seven-pointer in the 18th minute he and England went rapidly downhill. The Boks played as if they were in Pretoria.
"We could have scored three or four tries ourselves," Johnson said. "We had chances but we didn't put them away. We've got to back ourselves to do this. It's about people standing up and getting on with the job."
Will there be changes? "They are the best players we've got and 80 minutes doesn't change that. We created more opportunities in that game than we had in the last three or four against South Africa."
It shouldn't do for Johnson to dwell on statistics. In Paris last year England lost a World Cup pool match to the Springboks 36-0, a result that made Johnson, watching from a TV studio, ashamed. England went on to the final, losing15-6 to the Boks but again failing to score a try. They haven't put one past them in 14 months.
Apart from the result and the fact that England looked like a second-tier nation, there are other worrying factors. After a long campaign the Boks were supposed to be on their last legs; but they put in twice as many tackles as their opponents and yet looked twice as comfortable. England have a new agreement on quality time with the players, but you would not have guessed it. Last weekend the Rugby Football Union were dismayed at the booing when the Wallabies kicked for goal; yesterday the crowd's vitriol was directed not at the Boks but at England, and even Johnson.
Cipriani made a reassuring start, landing a good penalty in the first minute, and there was further encouragement seconds later when the advantage at the first scrum went to England after a collapse. The remainder of the half, though, went from good to awful as the Springboks established a handsome lead.
After Ruan Pienaar hit the target with a 45-yard penalty, Cipriani fell short with a penalty awarded after another scrum collapsed. Then South Africa were under pressure on their 22, and when Conrad Jantjes had a kick charged down the result was a scrum five. England blew it and, from a tap penalty, the Boks counter-attacked to great effect. After Ricky Januarie had been stopped just short, the home defence was badly exposed. From a scrum Pienaar made a half-break and Danie Rossouw – the man whose tackle prevented Mark Cueto from scoring a try in the World Cup final – blasted his way through the midfield, taking three white jerseys with him, including that of Cipriani.
Things were about to get a whole lot worse for the young stand-off. In the 18th minute Cipriani – he is becoming a serial offender, having conceded tries in similar fashion to Italy and the Pacific Islanders – had a kick charged down by Pienaar, who had a free run to the posts.
The Boks led 20-6 at half-time – the lock Bakkies Botha produced a try-saving tackle on Delon Armitage that summed up their magnificent defence – and it just got better for them, with Adrian Jacobs, Jaque Fourie and Bryan Habana adding further, exhilarating tries. By the end, England were unrecognisable as a team.
England: Pens: Cipriani 2
South Africa: Tries: Rossouw, Pienaar, Jacobs, Fourie, Habana
Cons: Pienaar 3, Steyn
Pens: Pienaar 3
Man For Man: England
Delon Armitage 5/10
Strong under the high ball, which was just as well given that he kept running into his own men while the pill came down. Chance of a try closed down by Botha. Couldn't stop Fourie's try. Not great.
Paul Sackey 5/10
Still looks like a sprinter given a ball and pointed at the line. As bereft of a clue as the rest.
Jamie Noon 5/10
Had a charge – it was like one of those slow-mo films of a car full of plastic chaps hitting a wall in order to test a new seatbelt system. One of three who didn't stop Rossouw...
Riki Flutey 5/10
... as was this chap, who lasted for 29 minutes of receiving the ball and having to step into a line of horribly grinning tacklers. Injured, unsurprisingly.
Ugo Monye 5/10
No chance to show his pace, and if he had he might not have been able to take it, after all the hammerings he took.
Danny Cipriani 4/10
To have one kick charged down for a Test try (in Italy in February) is unfortunate; to have another (against the Pacific Islanders) looks like carelessness. To have a third kick produce the same result is just downright annoying. He was the third offender in defence when Rossouw scored, and threw a horrible pass later to butcher a rare try chance.
Danny Care 6/10
Looked the one back with something of the pace – or the speed of thought – showed by his opposite number. Sparked but didn't catch alight, however, and was even done for feeding. Yes, it still happens.
Tim Payne 6/10
The Boks have the Incredible Schalk; there's a photo of the Wasps prop on Facebook somewhere, painted green and wearing purple cut-off pyjamas. The Incredible Bulk? Well, Du Plessis didn't find scrummaging against him too comfortable. Not that that mattered, though.
Lee Mears 6/10
Offloaded very well and the line-outs were, considering the opposition, not too bad at all. But still a little... little.
Phil Vickery 6/10
Tamed "The Beast", aka Mr Mtawarira, easily enough, but that was just as well after he had been pushed about by the Wallaby front row last week, which is still, whatever the experts say, the equivalent of having sand kicked in your face by the local maths geek. Not Charles Atlas, but not bad.
Steve Borthwick 5/10
Made fewer silly mistakes and messed about with Botha and Matfield's ball, which you don't do if you're any kind of chump, but still looks a bit lumpy around the pitch and his leadership is really going to come under scrutiny now.
Tom Palmer 5/10
Good line-out work, but he gave away three rather dunderheaded penalties and unlike Flutey, the other first-half-hour departee, he wasn't injured. At least that means the second-half collapse wasn't his fault. Small mercies.
James Haskell 5/10
Threw a lovely pass off his wrong hand for Armitage's try chance – it says a lot that when a European forward does that, it seems something out of the ordinary – but then stiff-armed Habana at an attacking ruck to concede a valuable attacking position. He does keep doing that kind of thing.
Tom Rees 6/10
More flickering evidence of what a very good openside flanker he can be – and probably will be, given time. Swift on to scraps and slick in attack but, as yet, just not quite the finished article and often buffeted off the ball. His opposite numbers, of course, were happy to do that. A lot.
Nick Easter 5/10
A sort of renaissance man of a No 8, what with his brute strength and subtle handling skills – his great-grandpa was a Springbok, after all – but sometimes he seems oddly unenlightened; one clumsy hoof of a kick while on the hoof in the Bok half wasted a decent half-chance. There weren't enough of those for it not to matter, obviously.
Toby Flood On for Flutey early. A poor man's Will Greenwood – tall, strong and clever, but the old centre never passed straight into touch.
Simon Shaw Cap No 50 in place of Palmer.
Dylan Hartley On for his first reasonable run in Test rugby, with the game gone. After 57 minutes. Oh, well.
Matt Stevens On for Vickery.
Harry Ellis On for Care for 15 minutes.
Jordan Crane First cap, on for Easter.
Man For Man: South Africa
Conrad Jantjes 7/10
Kicked his first kick-off out on the full, and the thought occurred that South Africa weren't really up for this. By the time he did it again, in the second half, it was obvious such lapses were mere blips and the full-back was just bleeping good. Saw yellow for charge on Armitage for a (very) professional foul.
JP Pietersen 7/10
Razor sharp, setting up the first try by pouncing on loose ball in his own 22 and making a beautiful little pass to send Jacobs away for the third. Less celebrated than Habana, usually for good reason, but more effective here.
Adrian Jacobs 7/10
A little scuttler of a centre, smaller than the two men opposite him but quicker and more dangerous. Scuppered any remaining home hopes with his well-taken try.
Jean De Villiers 7/10
Hard hitter – occasionally high too. Much more incisive in attack than England's centres, though that isn't saying much; hugely influential in general.
Bryan Habana 7/10
Becalmed by the rules and by watchful opponents, as he has been all season, but he got on with excellent defensive work and other good things and scored the last try of five. Inevitable, really.
Ruan Pienaar 8/10
Not even, really, a fly-half, though that he can also play full-back, scrum-half or wing only goes to show just how talented he is. Did for England with the ball in hand, without it – that chargedown – and when he was kicking it too. So, if he can't be stopped on the field, what about off it? Someone send an agent south with a wheelbarrow full of pound notes and a tape of Heineken Cup highlights. It usually works – ask the New Zealanders.
Ricky Januarie 7/10
Sharp, as one has to be against Care, and he didn't have the easiest time around the scrums and breakdowns because – honest – his pack was under pressure. Did as much as anyone to take, clinically, the chances that came his team's way.
Tendai Mtawarira 5/10
Saw yellow for going off his feet but went off them brilliantly in the second half to track down, tackle and stop an English attack. Scrums were never much fun, so that brought his mark down again.
John Smit 6/10
Flipped a pass through his legs at one point – put it down to playing with a few Fijians at Clermont Auvergne last season. Line-outs wobbled like his props' pins in the scrum but his leadership, on the day he overtook Os du Randt as South Africa's most capped forward, was exemplary.
Jannie Du Plessis 5/10
Flew in for the game, and if he didn't fly backwards against Payne he did find himself airborne a couple of times, which is never good. Off later to sit down and sort out the ringing in his ears.
Bakkies Botha 8/10
Brutally brilliant about the pitch, as always – has a clever way of hitting a maul with his shoulder, which is illegal, but then quickly wrapping his big, beefy biceps around the body he's just boshed. Made a couple of magnificent cover tackles as part of a truly magnificent defensive effort.
Victor Matfield 6/10
Not his best game, actually – the moment Fleet Street writes all those profiles and pieces proclaiming his line-out brilliance, England find a way to fight back. Sod's Law, one supposes, but such troubles didn't stop his usual awkward-squaddery around the field.
Schalk Burger 8/10
The leader of an unforgiving defence. Tellingly, when it came to it he was simply stronger than Haskell and Easter, the two heavy-duty hitters in the home back row.
Danie Rossouw 8/10
Excellent try – went straight through and over three backs to plant the ball over the line. That just doesn't happen in the Tri-Nations. Off later, a job very well done indeed.
Pierre Spies 7/10
A little quieter than in the days when he first made his mark, back in 2007. Because of the illness that kept him out of the World Cup? Hope not.
Chiliboy Ralepelle On to spice things up a bit. Sorry.
Frans Steyn On for Pienaar.
Andries Bekker On for Botha.
Brian Mujati On for Du Plessis.
Jaque Fourie Replaced Jacobs; try at the end.
Ryan Kankowski On for Rossouw.
Heinrich Brussow First cap, in place of Spies.