It was the sort of kick that Marcus Smith had slotted countless times before. Central, 25 metres out, unmissable under normal circumstances, but plenty still held their breath inside Twickenham fearing a final twist to finish a gripping, gruelling battle of a game between England and South Africa.
“At that moment I was just thinking ‘Marcus, please don’t miss’,” chuckled England full-back Freddie Steward afterwards. Smith didn’t. A brush back of the hair, three steps up to the ball, and a clean strike, Smith a figure of cool and calm to snatch victory from defeat on a day that saw many of England’s newest stars begin to bud in the Twickenham hothouse.
They had to rise to the challenge to complete an unbeaten autumn because this was a game that England had little right to win. Even amid a scintillating start there was the familiar dispiriting sight of a limping Manu Tuilagi, England shorn of their centre inside 10 minutes after a tweaked hamstring in scoring the first try.
After the fury and furore during a week of perceived unjust treatment from World Rugby, a fired-up South African side was expected. While England had the better of the opening 40 minutes, after the restart it appeared the Springboks were ready to turn the screw and put England away with a trademark second-half surge.
South Africa dominated for long periods after the interval, as a nervous, bristling energy reverberated around Twickenham and at times appeared to flow through England, too. Even the otherwise outstanding Steward began to fumble high balls; South Africa’s replacements were able to detonate great craters into which England often stumbled.
Since Opta began tracking data in 2010, England have not conceded more than the 18 penalties Andrew Brace awarded against the home side. It took two moments of divine defensive intervention from Max Malins to keep the Springboks out, and had Handre Pollard been more accurate from the tee, the ill-discipline may have cost England victory.
Yet the young English side clung on. Having just about kept South Africa out as the Springboks toiled at one end, it took only one moment of clinical play at the other for England to cross, Raffi Quirke gleefully skipping to the line after Joe Marchant’s break. While Makazole Mapimpi soon struck back in kind, and Frans Steyn nudged South Africa ahead, England remained in range to allow Smith to strike the final, telling blow and leave plenty for Eddie Jones to be excited about.
“Twenty minutes into the second half I thought we were almost at breaking point,” admitted the England head coach. “They tend to win the second half and we just managed to hang in there, absorb the punishment and when we got the opportunity we managed to take it.
“This series just gives the players a lot of confidence, I think. We’ve added some really good, aggressive attack into our game.”
These are the first stages in England’s evolution but this sort of early defining performance will do a germinal side plenty of good. Of the England backline that finished the game, only Jonny May and Henry Slade had celebrated a 25th birthday; Jones delivered an emphatic statement of confidence in Quirke by taking off Ben Youngs with half-an-hour to play. Tom Curry may be a comparative veteran to some but the man who closed the game as the England captain remains an incipient number eight and only 23.
And then there was Smith, the man whose crisp strike took it from one of those days for England, to one of those days. Jones is not quite ready to replicate the adoration or adulation of an enthroning crowd but even the evasive Australian knows he has a potentially special player on his hands.
“Look, he’s going to be good. As long as you blokes [journalists] don’t pour too much poison in his head. He’s a work in progress and each game he’s going to get a little bit better. I thought he did a great job but I know he’s going to be better in the Six Nations.
“We said in the summer that the Lions tour draws a line in the sand, and that you need to regenerate and have a little bit of a rebirth to go to the World Cup. There’s some good players coming through but we’ve got some pretty good experienced players, too.
“They feel comfortable within themselves, they want to be together, they want to work together. Our stated aim is to win the World Cup, so we want to be better in the next campaign.”
England’s midfield stood out more generally, adjusting well after the early loss of Tuilagi. So often asked to play second or third fiddle in England’s attack, here Slade was the star, thrice carving his bow across South Africa’s tightly wound defensive strings with three magnificent, varied passes to set up England’s tries.
An attacking performance like that may cause conundrums come the Six Nations. With Curry and Courtney Lawes (particularly) advancing their cases for consideration for a more consistent elevation to the captaincy, should Owen Farrell recover as hoped from ankle surgery and Tuilagi’s latest ailment be minor, then Jones will have a decision to make on Farrell’s place in the starting side. After the midfield looked so comfortable in his absence it is getting tougher and tougher to see how he slots into this “new” England.
On a day that the great and the good of England’s past and present gathered in the posh seats to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Rugby Football Union, on the pitch England were undoubtedly looking to the future. After a victory like that over the world champions, it was hard not to conclude that it looks very bright indeed.
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