Red Rose pass test with flying colours

 

Port Elizabeth

The Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer considered it "unacceptable"; Stuart Lancaster, his England counterpart, opted for "frustrating". It was hard to argue with either description: drawn games are, as a wise man once said, the rugby equivalent of kissing your sister. Yet in the final analysis (a 14-14 draw), there was the hint of something genuinely satisfying about the tourists' last hurrah here – a hint that should, if Lancaster manages things right over the next four months, develop into something tangible and substantial when the South Africans come knocking on Twickenham's door in November.

As Lancaster's running of the national team has been close to inspirational in the 28 weeks since his initial appointment as interim coach in early December, there is no reason to think his sure-footedness will suddenly desert him and leave him prone to the kind of pratfall that defined the tenure of his predecessor, Martin Johnson. Some of the items on his "to do" list are far from straightforward – there are, for instance, delicate choices to be made regarding the 32-man Elite Player Squad, due to be named inside a fortnight – but as the Cumbrian said yesterday: "We have some foundations now. I think we have a much clearer understanding of people's strengths and weaknesses as a result of this trip."

Much has been made of the "new spirit" at the heart of this post-Johnson age – of the freshly-cast culture of commitment and responsibility, of the "one-team environment", of the Musketeerish sense of "all for one and one for all" togetherness underpinning a squad determined to be greater than the sum of its parts. Was this stuff real, or was it for the birds? That question was central to the third and final Test of a series already won by the Boks and, by performing as they did, England came up with a very decent answer.

Forced to field what was on the face of it a weakened side – no Chris Robshaw, no Ben Youngs, no Alex Corbisiero – and shorn of Toby Flood's playmaking skills inside 13 minutes, they contested so fiercely at the tackle area and defended so securely deep in their own territory that the South Africans quickly found themselves readdressing their assumption of superiority. Most impressive was England's refusal to crack in the last five minutes, when the "big green machine" was rolling towards them at full velocity. Led by a back-row trio of apparently inexhaustible determination, they fought the Boks to a standstill on the 22-metre line before driving them back and mounting one last, multi-phased assault of their own.

James Haskell, back on international duty for the first time since the World Cup misery in New Zealand last October, had set the tone in the dressing room, telling his colleagues: "We're custodians of this shirt and I'm sick to death of losing in it." If this might have been thought just a little rich, coming as it did from a Johnny-come-lately who had been summoned from foreign shores only because of injuries to others, there are two points to be made. Firstly, Haskell is congenitally incapable of keeping his views to himself (no Trappist he). Secondly, and more importantly, the words he used were the right ones, and he backed them up with actions. In a team of workaholics, he shirked less than anyone.

Regrets? There were a few, here in the Eastern Cape, and they demand a mention now. England could and should have won the game: had they been equipped to play even half-convincingly in attack, a first victory over the Boks in 10 attempts would surely have been theirs. Then there was the discipline, or lack of it. Time and again, the referee Steve Walsh penalised the tourists on the floor; indeed, his patience was tested to such a degree that Dylan Hartley, captain for the day, was offered a 10-minute rest in the cooler without the option. Hartley's front-row partner Dan Cole was the principal miscreant, although the Leicester prop is now so important to this side, he can be forgiven almost anything.

It is also true to say that the South Africans were a long way off the mark, both in thought and deed. Morne Steyn is either a dead-eyed marksman or he is nothing, and as the outside-half from Bellville landed only 50 per cent of his goals – not only in this Test, but over the stretch of the series – you can draw your own conclusions. His half-back partner Francois Hougaard was scarcely more effective, and the same can be said for the No 8 Pierre Spies. There again, the fact that the 1974 Springboks were utterly shambolic did not, and does not, make the Lions who splattered them all over South Africa anything less than great.

When Lancaster spoke of the positives to be derived from this final fling of a 12-month season, he was no doubt thinking of the full-back Alex Goode, wonderfully assured on his first Test start and quite obviously one of the men most likely to give England's limp attacking game the stiffening it so clearly needs; of Danny Care, whose try-scoring return to the scrum-half role after a well-documented catalogue of off-field misdemeanours was a triumph of rehabilitation; and of Thomas Waldrom, whose reputation as a flat-track bully must be reappraised in light of his industrious efforts at No 8.

Yet the biggest positive of all has been Lancaster's own performance on this, his first tour as an elite international coach. Asked whether he felt he now fitted that description, he was suitably elusive in his response. "It's been so busy, manically busy, since I first became involved with the squad, I haven't had time to draw breath, let alone think about whether I feel like a Test coach," he replied. "I don't suppose I'll reflect on that until I take a couple of weeks' holiday. But when you're standing on the pitch at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, looking at the sea of Springbok shirts in the stands, you recognise the nature of the responsibility you've taken on. So far, I've just rolled with it. When I stop for a fortnight… that's when all this will sink in."

To those observing the tour with a fair eye, much of the sinking-in process has been completed. Twickenham, majestically consistent in getting things wrong since the World Cup triumph of 2003, made the correct choice in Lancaster, who might have panicked more than once since the start of the Six Nations but kept his nerve instead. Saturday's game was the toughest examination of his self-belief to date, and the test was duly passed. Onwards and upwards.

South Africa: Try Pietersen; Penalties Steyn 3. England: Try Care; Penalties Farrell 2, Flood.

South Africa: G Aplon (Western Province); J P Pietersen (KwaZulu-Natal), J De Villiers (Western Province, capt), W Olivier (Blue Bulls), B Habana (Western Province); M Steyn (Blue Bulls), F Hougaard (Blue Bulls); T Mtawarira (KwaZulu-Natal), B Du Plessis (KwaZulu-Natal), J Du Plessis (KwaZulu-Natal), E Etzebeth (Western Province), J Kruger (Blue Bulls), J Potgieter (Blue Bulls), M Coetzee (KwaZulu-Natal), P Spies (Blue Bulls). Replacements: R Pienaar (Ulster) for Hougaard, 49; F Van der Merwe (Blue Bulls) for Etzebeth, 54; R Kankowski (KwaZulu-Natal) for Potgieter, 54; A Strauss (Free State) for B Du Plessis, 62; W Kruger (Blue Bulls) for J Du Plessis, 75.

England: A Goode (Saracens); C Ashton (Northampton), J Joseph (London Irish), M Tuilagi (Leicester), B Foden (Northampton); T Flood (Leicester), D Care (Harlequins); J Marler (Harlequins), D Hartley (Northampton, capt), D Cole (Leicester), T Palmer (Stade Français), G Parling (Leicester), T Johnson (Exeter), J Haskell (Highlanders), T Waldrom (Leicester). Replacements: O Farrell (Saracens) for Flood, 12; B Barritt (Saracens) for Farrell, 26-34; L Mears (Bath) for Johnson 54-60; Barritt for Joseph, 62; M Botha (Saracens) for Palmer, 66; P Dowson (Northampton) for Johnson, 66.

Referee S Walsh (Australia).

England on tour: Winners & losers

Three big winners...

Alex Goode: Seize the day and all that. Stuart Lancaster promised to give the most sophisticated member of the full-back fraternity a chance on this tour, and after the coach delivered on his pledge, he grasped the opportunity with both fail-safe hands. Likely to be a central figure in the run-up to 2015.

Joe Marler: Capped, dropped, reinstated… the Mohican-haired Harlequin – not a form of words often heard at the Stoop down the decades – experienced the full range of emotions and returns home a better, stronger, tougher prop than when he left. His contest with Alex Corbisiero for the No 1 shirt will be compelling.

Tom Youngs: From nowhere to everywhere. Leicester's second-string hooker travelled as an uncapped forward, and uncapped he remains. But his "dirt-tracker" display in Potchefstroom had the coaches purring with delight – he was quick, abrasive, clever in his angles, sure in his handling – and his time is racing towards him.

...And three heavy losers

Ugo Monye: The Lions wing is unlikely to feature at the 2015 World Cup and, after failing to go the distance in his one midweek appearance in Potchefstroom, there is no guarantee he will be picked in Lancaster's elite squad, especially as the super-quick Gloucester back Jonny May is on the rise.

Mouritz Botha: A combative force in the second row, he looked short of Test class in the Johannesburg match and duly lost his place to Tom Palmer, who drove the message home with a fine performance. Botha's display off the bench amounted to a howl of rage, but the die may be cast.

Ben Morgan: Inexperienced tactically, underbaked physically and too quiet on the back foot, the Gloucester-bound No 8 had two shots and missed with both of them. He won't be written off – his attack is too valuable – but he has lost ground by the acre.

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