The day Dan dared

England 29 South Africa 9: Dashing Luger's late try puts a finishing gloss on a fearsome grind as Woodward's men come through their test of strength
Click to follow

A classic it was not, but Clive Woodward was not too concerned about stereo quality. Just feel the width. Five out of five against the southern hemisphere sides for England. And if the one try of the match here yesterday, an epic gallop to the corner by Dan Luger, was saved until the very last minute, England had sewn up their biggest victory over South Africa long before the final rites were administered. It is New Zealand, Australia and South Africa who now have to consider the size of the gap in class.

The source of the victory was familiar enough. Jonny Wilkinson scored 21 points, equalling his tally against Australia a fortnight before. Just imagine what his total for the three autumn Tests would have been had he been part of the Romanian coconut shy. "An awesome player," was Woodward's description, though he could have tagged any number of red- rose jerseys with the same label. "Phil Larder [England's defensive coach] rates Jonny as one of the most destructive tacklers he has seen in both codes of rugby."

Wilkinson received a Krugerrand for being named man of the match. The rand, though, is almost as devalued a currency as Springbok rugby right now. But Mike Catt, who controlled England's backs and kicked an immaculate drop goal before limping off with a knee injury, must have run the England stand-off close.

"I love playing against these sides," said Woodward, the England manager. "South Africa, Australia, the bigger the game for us, the better. Based on our record, we can compete with these teams. We deserved to win and, though it wasn't the greatest spectacle, in terms of sheer physical intensity it was wonderful." A game, in other words, for the coach and the connoisseur.

Luger's try was worth the wait for an increasingly frustrated full house and it was right that he should begin the celebrations well before reaching the line. Twickenham – and England – deserved a flourish. But the crowd's frustration was understandable, the result of South Africa's woeful lack of flair and of the replacement referee's fondness for the whistle. For all the hurried step towards Twickenham, the omens for a flowing game were not exactly promising. The Springboks named a team in their own image, heavy on brawn, potentially light on brain. They were never going to beat England at football, so the rumble it was. Woodward thought it the most physical game he had ever seen.

England tried valiantly to break free, but the most significant portrait of the first half was painted by Austin Healey, old motormouth himself, standing a yard or so in from his station on the touchline, arms aloft. He either wanted the ball or a pen. There was time to write a couple of columns and an epilogue to his latest autobiography.

Another little cameo aptly summarised the second half. After 73 minutes of starvation, Healey dashed in to take a quick penalty well within Wilkinson's kicking range. But he thought twice of the dare, an unusual virtue for the Leicester Lip, put the ball down and wandered back to his station on the wing, receiving a pat on the head from Will Greenwood for his decision, like a headmaster dismissing a particularly troublesome pupil.

Referee Stuart Dickinson had the right idea. After a few minutes, he called the captains together and excused himself. A leg injury, he said, but the writing on the wall was already in capitals. The Australian clearly had better things planned for his afternoon. His replacement, David McHugh from Ireland, due a gentle run-out along the touchline, was thrust into the unwanted role of whistle-blower.

The South Africans had only one idea in mind and it was not the execution of the finer arts. Their methods doubtless would have played well on the high veld, but on a perfect rugby day in west London, a full house deserved something a little more ambitious. To be fair, this must be one of the most ordinary sides ever to wear the green-and-yellow jersey. If the Australians could be accused of desperate cynicism, the South Africans did not even get that far.

Their one period of sustained attack foundered on England's defensive organisation. Solid tackling, a turnover and the left boot of Wilkinson to safety. That, as much as the industry up front, would have given Woodward cause for satisfaction. England won a game on home turf, but in South Africa's physical and mental terrain, which made the defeat twice as acute.

"It feels catastrophic," said Bobby Skinstad, the Springbok captain. "The sort of defeat where you don't want to get up in the morning. Yes, it was a physical game, but they won the game tactically, not physically."

Harry Viljoen, the Springbok coach, defended his side's lack of adventure, preferring, understandably perhaps, to deflect attention on to England's strengths. "On the day it was a matter of using our opportunities, and we didn't do that. But I want to give all credit to England. They were the better side."

It will be back to the domestic chores for England in the new year, against Scotland at Murrayfield. Woodward was eyeing New Zealand and a sixth scalp from the south. That pleasure will have to wait for another year or two. For once, the All Blacks might be happy to postpone the challenge.

Comments