Jonathan Davies: Aura of invincibility slips after victory that flatters

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The Independent Online

There, thanks for the grace of Koen, go England into the quarter-finals. They still have games against Samoa and Uruguay but I think we can rely on them to win the group.

But after this tight and often frantic game I don't think they will proceed in the tournament with quite the same feeling of invincibility they brought into it. Winning was more important than quality of performance but the margin of victory flattered them and they relied heavily on the woes of South Africa's outside-half Louis Koen who missed four kickable first-half penalties and had a clearance kick charged down for the second-half try that sent England on their way.

I'm not suggesting their chances of winning the trophy are seriously diminished, but it will return a sense of realism to the hype and high expectation their supporters have placed on them.

At a dinner a couple of weeks ago, I shared the platform with Martin Johnson and we agreed that no matter what form you take into a World Cup, everything depends on how you play on the day. This game would have underlined that view and I'm sure England will benefit from the experience. At the same time they would have given Australia and New Zealand a lot of heart - even Wales might have bucked up at the prospect of meeting them in the quarters.

I felt England made the mistake of trying to play too much football in the first half. I realise they were trying to build up through the phases but they were running slow ball, and bad ball at that. They showed good ball retention at the start and put South Africa under pressure. When Jonny Wilkinson kicked them into a 3-0 lead you would thought it would settle them down and there were a few promising signs.

They used the tactic they employed in the Six Nations of Josh Lewsey and Jason Robinson changing positions for the kick returns and it worked very well because Robinson cut them to pieces with one early return after a high kick but that sense of superiority didn't last.

It all became very frantic with not much control and their frequent mistakes encouraged South Africa who welcomed the chance to get into the game with a vengeance.

It was never the dirty or violent game many expected. Lawrence Dallaglio seemed to be complaining of a bit of eye gouging late on but there was little to cause referee Peter Marshall to reach for a card, although Lewsey must have come near to one with an early tackle that stopped one of the Springbok's few try-scoring opportunities.

One of England's main worries must concern their scrum which was under pressure too much for my liking. The scrum was never a tidy area and I think England got away with a few decisions.

But England suffered too many turnovers that lost them that wonderful air of technical efficiency they've had. Against any side with a cutting edge they would have been punished more. But the South Africans are limited behind the scrum where they have no creative genius.

They needed to play in England's 22 because they weren't going to score from distance. On the other hand, if Koen had done his business with the boot in the first half they might have been tempted into more adventure.

It was a very poor display of goal-kicking and the fact that two of his attempts fell short showed a lack of judgement that is fatal at this level. The kick he had charged down was in some way due to the bad pass he received but he seemed to step towards the charging Moody and closed down his own space.

That gave England the breathing space they need to get their powerful machine working properly and Wilkinson stepped in with the drop goals that sealed the victory. Only then did he look anything like himself. He had an indifferent game and his kicking out of hand was anything but convincing.

Kyran Bracken had a very good outing. He chased and harried Joost van der Westhuizen at every opportunity and on one occasion saved England from embarrassment when Will Greenwood caught one of Koen's unsuccessful penalty attempts and threw it forward without touching down. It gave the Springboks a scrum five metres out and a only a brilliant run around the scrum by Bracken stopped Van der Westhuizen setting up an attack. Even though it looks as if the South African scrum-half is past his best, that could have been a telling moment.

England can take heart that others are capable of slipping up as well. Japan would have made Scotland feel better by giving France a scare. But, like England, France have this ability to snatch back a game when it looks like getting away from them.

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