Mark Evans: A great win, but not the greatest performance

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The Independent Online

A cold and wet day saw the much-vaunted Tri-Nations champions reduced to a rabble - without England even having to play too well to do it. Andy Robinson will be delighted with many aspects of his team's performance. But he will know that, for all the hype that may surround the new golden boy in the No 10 shirt, this was a performance which was promising but by no means perfect.

A cold and wet day saw the much-vaunted Tri-Nations champions reduced to a rabble - without England even having to play too well to do it. Andy Robinson will be delighted with many aspects of his team's performance. But he will know that, for all the hype that may surround the new golden boy in the No 10 shirt, this was a performance which was promising but by no means perfect.

Having said that, there were elements of England's display which were top-class, notably the scrummage, where the Leicester duo of Julian White and Graham Rowntree were outstanding. They completely dominated the Springbok front row and created the platform from which Martin Corry went on to have his best game for England for a long time.

In general play the English forwards were so superior that it was almost embarrassing. The Springbok pack simply did not generate any momentum at all - no driving mauls, no pick-and-goes, no go-forward. Indeed, for long periods they simply dropped the ball - almost as if they knew their more ambitious efforts were doomed to failure and therefore not really worth the trouble.

But it was not only up front that England were markedly superior. A detailed comparison of the merits of the respective back threes would almost be cruel. Suffice to say that the broken-field running abilities of Josh Lewsey and Jason Robinson in particular were in a completely different league to those of their counterparts.

Much attention pre-game had centred on the new England midfield combination of Charlie Hodgson and Henry Paul. As many close observers of the Zurich Premiership have been saying for a few months, there is no doubt that the Sale pivot is the form No 10 in England, regardless of whether or not Jonny Wilkinson is fit.

Yesterday his goal-kicking returned to its customary excellence and he showed exactly why he is such a running threat. Ironically he did not have the opportunity to deliver many of his trademark long, miss-passes which do so much to give his club side such tremendous width. Paul delivered a beautifully weighted kick for Mark Cueto's try and contributed one or two deft touches, but he suffered more than most from England's rather stuttering performance ball in hand.

They knocked on or simply dropped a huge amount of ball, and as a result never really got a consistent wide game going. Therefore the Gloucester centre was not able to influence the play as best he might. However, the South Africans were so supine that England were still able to win while only intermittently getting out of second gear.

It is quite difficult to evaluate this English performance because the opposition were so poor that the home side were never, for instance, asked to defend under sustained pressure. Nor did they have to close the game out - it was all over well before half-time. Nevertheless, at the very least it was very promising considering all the changes in the last 12 months.

For such a new-look team the level of composure was very pleasing. The team looked as if they could up the tempo whenever it was really required - and when they did so it usually resulted in a straightforward penalty kick at goal being awarded. The English forwards looked so much quicker in thought and deed that they were able to monopolise both territory and possession until very late in the game.

On the debit side, the line-out still did not look secure and the defensive skills of Hodgson and Paul still do not inspire confidence that they would stand up to a stern examination.

There were also some worrying signs of Andy Gomarsall trying too hard to be the playmaker from the scrum-half position. Admirable though it is that he is so keen to take responsibility, he needs to underplay his hand a little more. Some of his attempted tactical kicks were so technically difficult, even for such a skilful player, that he almost set himself up to fail.

A shame, since I am convinced that he is by some distance the best scrum-half in the country and deserves an extended run in the national team after being a fringe player for so long.

This was a terrific first big-game result for a new coach who has a great deal of support within the English rugby fraternity. Fortress Twickenham survives yet another southern-hemisphere assault - albeit from a team who went out with much more of a whimper than a bang.

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