There is nothing wrong with a solid dose of realism. England this autumn have been a team capable of great vagaries in form. They are a young side, with no history of achievement behind them, still searching for consistency.
How much more valuable for this road accident to occur now than at an early stage of the 2011 World Cup. At least Martin Johnson has the Six Nations Championship and three warm-up games in August in which to give the likes of Ben Youngs, Courtney Lawesand Chris Ashton further experience before they travel to New Zealand in September.
England have had their good – sometimes very good – spells and they have had their down side. Some enraptured comparisons were made, after the 35-18 win over Australia, between the present generation and that combination which ruled the world in 2003 – with no justification whatsoever.
Johnson, the team manager, has had no truck with any of it. "This is all new for a lot of them," he said three days ago, when he confirmed his starting XV. Six members of his side had never faced the unique physical challenge that South Africa represent and Johnson said: "We're not picking these guys because they're young but because they're the best."
Best, that is, by English standards. Not on the world stage. England will be mortified that they made so little impression on a Springbok side shorn of nine first-choice players (never mind three or four back-up men with the World Cup experience of, say, a Danie Rossouw).
So they should be. It will serve to make them better. Between now and the Six Nations, the coaches will pick over the performances this month, assessing the qualities, for example, of the pack which held New Zealand and dominated Australia but struggled to impose themselves on Samoa and South Africa.
Yesterday there was a master class at the line-out from Victor Matfield which denied England ball from a fundamental phase of play. The official statistics gave the Springboks 19 takes (two of them against the throw) to England's six but more interesting was the metres England ran to no effect: they made 596 metres, ball in hand. South Africa covered 175m.
That is testimony to the route-one rugby South Africa played. Morne Steyn's tactical kicking was more valuable than his goal-kicking. As Matfield, the Springbok captain who played for more than 70 minutes with a cracked rib, said: "We played in the right areas of the field, we kept control of the ball, we attacked with accuracy and we were patient."
All of these are qualities that Johnson demands of his teams and which, yesterday, they could not deliver. How different would it have been but for the early removal through injury of Toby Flood and Tom Croft and the neutralising of Ashton?
"It was a disruption but we have to be good enough to handle that," Johnson said.
This is not to say that England's two outstanding results of this year, wins over Australia in Sydney in June and at Twickenham this month, should be discounted. "The guys know that they can go and compete with these teams," Johnson said. "They're glum now but there's been a huge amount of good stuff to come from this series and I think we'll be better for it."
He has no doubt that he has the right group of players with which to launch an assault on 2011. What he does not haveis the world-class core – a Matfield or a Juan Smith, never mind a Richie McCaw or a Dan Carter – that is needed to claim the ultimate prize.
Matfield joined the Twitter generation on Wednesday and found so much criticism of last Saturday's defeat by Scotland that he ignored it for the rest of the week. "Maybe there'll be some better stuff after today," he said, knowing how fickle his country's followers can be. Suddenly the world champions do not seem to be in such a bad place.Reuse content