Nick Townsend: To England the spoils, to South Africa the promise

Corry and Co focus on survival - tourists can look ahead
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The Independent Online

As Phil Vickery became the sharp end of England's bulldozer to claim victory with the winning try, Andy Robinson leapt in the air as though his job depended on it. He had said beforehand that it was all about producing an improved England performance. In reality, he knew that a result here was just as crucial; for his future, for England's. It was redemption day for Robinson on what may turn out to be a seminal afternoon.

A few minutes later, as the hooter sounded to England's first victory in eight games and as many months, their head coach was down on the pitch, smiling broadly, hugging his players, led by Martin Corry whom Robinson had supported through a difficult week in which the captain's leadership had been questioned by England's director of elite rugby Rob Andrew as well as former players, including Will Carling.

Corry, deployed in his most effective position of No 8, began the game conceding a penalty when he caught the visitors' Butch James late and could well have received a yellow card had referee Steve Walsh been in less benevolent mood, reflected: "It's credit to everyone. Nobody panicked. Everyone stuck to it. We showed great mental strength when you think that we did go two scores down. This makes me very pleased and very proud."

It was a match of unrelenting intensity, characterised by horrible handling errors from both sides, but the performance was not uppermost on Corry's mind as he added, perhaps understandably mixing his metaphors, given the elation of victory: "Hopefully, we've put the ghost of that run of defeats to bed." We know what he meant.

He and Robinson could sleep a little easier last night, though for too much of this Test many of England's old failings re-emerged. Their passing lacked precision and authority, and when they enjoyed possession, which they did particularly in the second half, too often they failed to capitalise on it.

Indeed, they were fortunate to claim victory, and this against opposition which was very much second-string, with a dozen elite Springboks left at home. Whether that was a wise decision by Jake White is arguable, given that his own job is in jeopardy, yet you sense that the Springboks coach will probably derive greater satisfaction from the events yesterday than his counterpart.

Three years onfrom World Cup triumph was there just a hint of sarcasm from the crowd as a rendition of "Swing low, sweet chariot" accompanied Robinson's men grasping gratefully to that belated two-point difference in the final minutes?

There will at least be a transfusion of confidence for the men in white. The red corpuscles surging through them may just become prominent again as England prepare to meet these opponents here again next week.

Robinson knew he needed to salvage something. Already down to sixth in the rankings, there was a possibility of sinking below Scotland with defeat here. Signs of promise were not sufficient. The England head coach needed a victory.

On an afternoon when a revamped England so desperately sought to redeem the nation's rugby reputation, it was a 19-year-old full- back Francois Steyn, just out of school, who caught the eye and could well have embarrassed the hosts. He also had a fine game against Ireland last week. Innocence can sometimes be no state to take into a match like this, as Mathew Tait discovered when he had his international debut brutally crushed by Gavin Henson at Cardiff 21 months ago, but Steyn knew no fear as he ran and kicked for fun, and in the first half drop-kicked a goal from distance. He also attempted a penalty from way out, and was well short, but the legacy was a South Africa try as they counter-attacked and James combined with Jean De Villiers to score in the corner.

For the second week running, England had conceded a try just before half-time. Also for the second successive week, their players were serenaded with catcalls as they headed, chastened, for the dressing room. The tourists emerged out early after the interval. England spent maximum time. One can only imagine what was being said, although it had little immediate positive effect before Mark Cueto scored a try. By then James's grubber kick had offered Akona Ndungane the opportunity to increase South Africa's advantage.

Though fly-half Charlie Hodgson departed with a knee injury, England were by no means let down by his replacement Andy Goode. The appearance of replacement Vickery in the second half, followed by Lewis Moody, Chris Jones and Lee Mears, and Boks' loss of De Villiers in the sin-bin gave England the chance they needed. The fact that they accepted it will instil Robinson, and his playerswith renewed hope.