James Lawton: England's lack of conviction exposed as the real penalty

Farrell’s body language echoed McEnroe: “You cannot be serious

There were a few desultory bars of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" but long before its wheels fell off in one last crescendo of futility Twickenham Man had to make an appalling accommodation with reality.

He was urged by England's head coach Stuart Lancaster to absorb all the positives in the 16-15 defeat by a weakened, time-expired and mentally run-down South Africa, and it is true there were a number of these, not least his team's raw and powerful physicality at the point of breakdown. None of them remotely challenged, however, a truth that was as bleak as the grey and weeping sky. It said quite simply that this England team isn't any time soon going anywhere remotely close to the highest company.

If there was anyone displaying the potential to be a force of authentic inspiration, once the South Africans announced their ability to stifle the most polished Englishman on the field, full-back Alex Goode, it was the huge-hearted captain Chris Robshaw. This, though, was only up to the moment he ordered a disbelieving Owen Farrell to kick an utterly meaningless penalty as the clock ticked down. The youngster's body language was a direct quote from John McEnroe: "You cannot be serious."

Lancaster said that he would not be reacting to Robshaw's bewildering choice of options – with just over two minutes on the clock the call of a kick to the corner would have preserved the last chance of victory – until after a weekend of reflection.

Reflecting on quite what, though? It could only be that Robshaw, for all his heart and sinew, had managed to capture just about perfectly the central weakness of his team. It is a lack of conviction in the most decisive areas of the game, a failure of both clarity and creativity.

The fact that simply refuses to permit any swerving, no more than a South African cover which most of the time seemed to be playing from memory, is that England did not even vaguely threaten to score a try.

Mike Catt, the coach of attacking skills, put this down almost exclusively to poor handling conditions but his face was sphinx-like when he said it, as well it might have been. His old boss Sir Clive Woodward once sent him on to the field to unravel England's confusion in the 2003 World Cup quarter-final with Wales in Brisbane – even though this involved moving sideways a Jonny Wilkinson just a couple of weeks away from legendary status – but on Saturday there was not a breath of such a solution.

Danny Care came on for a disgruntled Ben Youngs and at that moment an England try receded even further into the ether.

Robshaw's penalty decision was calamitous not so much in its consequences – there was no guarantee that the English pack would, even from so close in, make the score that seemed so far beyond the powers of the backs – but what it said about the quality of leadership in a team desperate to show some signs of measurable progress.

Last week England were criticised – quite excessively, it has to be said – for pursuing seven points rather than three when they had the Australians on the back front with plenty of time on the clock. That, at the very least, was a statement of some self-belief. On Saturday night you could only believe that Robshaw had become so rattled by the force of criticism he had pretty much lost the power to think.

It is a grim augury for the arrival of the All Blacks – and one barely touched by the declaration of another England coach, Andy Farrell, that some big questions had been asked, and big answers produced.

While making this dubious argument he had special praise for young lock Joe Launchbury, his partner Geoff Parling and the prodigiously energetic No 8 Ben Morgan.

This would have been more convincing if for the second week running a young product of the other end of the world had not strongly suggested he had come from even further afield, which is to say a different and hugely superior planet.

Last week it was the Australian with the English genes, Michael Hooper. On Saturday it was the mountainous Eben Etzebeth, who recently celebrated his 21st birthday.

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