England have waited four long years for this and in the end revenge was a dish taken with a huge measure of relief. Had Jonny Wilkinson been South African, the Springboks would have won. "He's fantastic,'' Martin Johnson, the England captain, said. "I'm glad he's on our side.'' Whereas Wilkinson scored 20 points with four penalties, two drop goals and a conversion, his opposite number Louis Koen had a miserable evening here. As a young Springboks side took the game to England in the first half, they had their opponents on the back foot and won a series of penalties. Koen kicked two but missed four.
England were only 12-6 to the good midway through the second half when Lewis Moody, who had come into the back row for the injured Richard Hill, charged down a kick by Koen and the ball bounced kindly for Will Greenwood to steer it over the line for a simple try.
It was the only one of the match and it buried the Springboks alive. It also put a false gloss on an English performance that was anything but assured. Last November at Twickenham, England destroyed South Africa 53-3, capitalising on their opponent's skulduggery and indiscipline.
Only two players, the captain Corne Krige and the flanker Joe van Niekerk, reappeared in yesterday's rematch and the South African pack had fewer caps in total than the number boasted by Jason Leonard.
In the first half in particular England were tackled and hounded to distraction and were fortunate to go in at half time on level terms, 6-6.
''We played pretty well in the second half and there was a massive feeling of relief,'' Clive Woodward, the England coach, said. "It was a must-win game. There were massive consequences for the side that lost.'' The result means that England, who complete their group with matches against Samoa and Uruguay, will finish top of Pool C, thereby avoiding New Zealand in the quarter-final. Instead they are scheduled to meet Wales and then France in the semis.
''I've no doubt South Africa could beat the All Blacks," Woodward said. "England beat New Zealand and South Africa should relish the challenge.'' Woodward admitted that England were "nowhere near our best,'' but added: "We will get stronger with every game. We've beaten South Africa five times in a row and I never thought the result was in doubt.'' It looked very much in doubt when South Africa launched a stunning counter-attack from inside their 22 which ended with Bakkies Botha heading for the right-hand corner where the combination of Jason Robinson and Ben Cohen managed to prevent the lock from touching down.
England began in familiar fashion, confidently winning primary possession and occasionally stealing an advantage on their opponents line-out and scrum. They also had the encouragement of a Wilkinson penalty in the fourth minute, struck with authority from 45 yards.
After Kyran Bracken had stymied a dangerous Springbok attack by marking an ill-judged chip from his opposite number Joost van der Westhuizen, England slipped the shackles in a 10-minute spell in which most of their runners were given the opportunity to do some damage. One promising move came to nothing when Neil Back, 20 yards from the South African line, inexplicably tried a drop goal.
The momentum was still with England and when Cohen found Mike Tindall outside him on the left wing, the centre went for the corner and was knocked into touch at the flag. It was their finest spell. The Springboks proceeded to harry them at every turn and with their rhythm and pattern disrupted, England looked very ordinary. The battle was eventually won but the war remains a different proposition.
"It might not have been the prettiest but it's all about winning,'' Johnson said. "It was a huge game and there was a lot of pressure on us. We fumbled and bumbled in the first half but its great to play a tough Test and come through.'' Koen missed kicks at goal in the 20th, 31st, 35th and 37th minutes. They would prove decisive as Wilkinson landed two simple penalties, both given when the South Africa defence fell off-side, early in the second half.
The Springboks were still causing England problems but when Koen had his kick charged down in the 63rd minute, the Springboks, who had put in 107 tackles, faded.
They had been involved in a monumental dogfight for possession and such was the speed and commitment of their challenge that even Wilkinson at times looked mortal. Indeed, some of his kicking out of hand was badly misdirected but his magical left foot was working as sweetly as ever when it came to putting points on the board and in the 67th and 75th minutes he rubbed salt into the Springboks wound with two drop goals. It didn't match the five that Jannie de Beer kicked in the quarter-finals of the 1999 World Cup but England were nevertheless extremely grateful.
England supporters greatly outnumbered the South African's in the crowd of 38,834 and at times the Subiaco Oval could have passed for the Surrey Oval. "The crowd were fantastic and more and more will come out to support us as we progress,'' Woodward said. "What this side has is tremendous character. We haven't conceded a try in two games and it plays well under pressure. At half-time in the dressing room there was no panicking, no shouting. Everybody was cool.'' After a series of phoney wars this was the first serious battle of the World Cup and England were palpably relieved to survive it. Having done so Woodward is probably correct in his assessment that they will get stronger as the tournament progresses. They will have to if they are to get their hands on the Cup.
In the meantime this important victory means that they have the luxury of taking the scenic, European route to the final stages rather than the more demanding southern hemisphere avenue.
Pens: Wilkinson 4
Drop goals: Wilkinson 2
South Africa 6
Pens: Koen 2
Half-time: 6-6 Attendance: 38,843Reuse content