England's match with South Africa was a contest which brought the Rugby World Cup alight. It was not a flowing game, but what a battle. Sadly for South Africa, the successful dynamics of modern rugby decree the need for a competitive place-kicker, otherwise a team has problems. On the day, Louis Koen, who is usually one of the best in that aspect of the game, saw his kicking skills collapse, failing with four out of six penalty attempts.
By contrast, Jonny Wilkinson remained ice cool, continuing his immaculate goal-kicking displays and accumulating 20 points, with two dropped goals at the end putting the final nails in the coffin of a strong, gallant South African side.
There are two ways of looking at England's performance. Doubtless others may well see some weaknesses in their lack of dominance, arguing that this was a performance which could be exploited by future opponents creating opportunities at England's expense. But I prefer to adopt the attitude that Clive Woodward's team are good enough to lift their game and learn from a difficult first-half. In my view, this established England as World Cup winning contenders rather than as a side with core weaknesses, as others might think.
The South Africans could have led at half-time and taken into the dressing-room a crucial psychological advantage. Instead of which, Koen had missed a potential 12 points and also had a drop-goal attempt charged down because he took too long.
This was to presage the later, charged-down clearance kick which led to the England try. After poor service from the forward base Koen again took too long, and a brave dive at the kicking foot by Lewis Moody forced the error. But where was the full-back cover? The space behind Koen was unbelievable.
At the time South Africa hardly deserved this reverse. In a full-blooded Test match whose intensity was heightened by so much depending on the result, they had repulsed a strong handling start by England, after which they contested the game intensely.
As anticipated, the South African backline itself did not pose much threat to England's defensive pattern. With Koen laying deep at outside-half, the eager England defenders were able to flood up, allowing them to close their opponents down behind the gain line. This made any result in phased play from defence difficult. Most of the real threats came from counter-attacks of England kicks and turnovers when South Africa showed some impressive running and handling, especially from the forwards. They appear to have a good forward platform developing. This produced some impressive multi-handling waves of attack with Joe van Niekerk and Juan Smith (what a find he is) to the fore.
Tries were not available, however, as England defended to their usual organisation and tackling levels, underpinned by great spirit. Good defence starts at set-pieces. When their line was breached, England scrambled well to recover. This was epitomised in the last five minutes when South Africa staged a vigorous and sustained assault on the English line which, none the less, remained intact.
Despite Victor Matfield's excellent performance at the line-outs, South Africa still lost six pieces of crucial ball. Pressure at the scrum also allowed Kyran Bracken to interrupt service from the base. Tries just weren't available anywhere, which made it all the more imperative that goalkicking succeeded.
Meanwhile, England's attack, after the opening flourish, found themselves fenced in by the South African forward effort, backed up by a defence which allowed little time to play. Under pressure, their usual efficiency in control and use of the ball, though improving after half-time, went missing. It was really only the charged-down try which altered the picture entirely.
In the end, the game hinged on the relative performances of the half-backs. Sadly for South Africa, the downside of Koen's handling game was in evidence and his kicking failed to compensate. His scrum-half, Joost van der Westhuizen, is not, and was not allowed to be, the mercurial match-winner of yesteryear. By contrast, Bracken had a wonderful all-round game for England, showing excellent core skills, with a bonus in his harassment of the opposition scrum ball. He even pulled down an otherwise try-scoring, driving maul, 12 minutes into the second-half when England were holding only a slender 12-6 lead. With some referees that could have been a yellow card and a penalty try. Bracken was fortunate that both the referee and his touch judge missed completely so blatant an act.
Wilkinson was playing under such severe pressure that he found it difficult to launch attacks and his punting suffered, too. But with increasing control as the forwards improved, he took England downfield and his kicking prowess clinched the victory.
On the day, this was a severe test of England's Rugby World Cup credentials by worthy opponents. In spite of the hype and intensity, the game was played almost entirely in a great spirit even allowing for the pressure of the occasion. It was a "must-win" game and England should be uplifted by their victory. The fact that they came through and survived a first-half full of problems and difficulties was crucial.
As for South Africa, in the remainder of the World Cup I would not dismiss their chances. They will now have the tougher half of the draw to take on but, given the positions they created for themselves in the match, they will also have learnt a lot. I see no reason why their confidence should not be strong. If Koen can recover his composure, they will be a threat to any team. It was just a bad day at the office for him.
Jack Rowell, Bath's director of rugby, coached England from 1995-97.Reuse content