Let us not mince words. Not after a record England defeat at Twickenham or anywhere else on home turf which makes it the lowest of the low in nigh-on 140 years. When Nick Easter,the No 8, got into a fight with Danie Rossouw in the third quarter Steve Borthwick, the England captain, turned his back and had a think about what to do with the resulting penalty.Martin Johnson, you just knew, would have been in there with a hand clawing somewhere close to a Springbok's jugular. Borthwick is a player's player if ever there was one, butbehind his implacable face are the horrendous birth pains of this new England.
"The effort was there but effort does not get you all the way in international rugby," said Borthwick after his fourth defeat in six matches as captain (the wins were against Italy and the Pacific Islanders). He was asked if he felt humiliated. "Very disappointed," he said, the mask intact even if England's line had been breached five times. Outside the monolithic stadium Twickenham man and woman were inshock. Instead of the hoped-for improvement on the previous week's defeat by the Wallabies this was, indeed, a humiliation.
It is not only Johnson's brute devilry which is missing, though when the Boks are scaling the ramparts a lashing of "cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war" wouldn't go amiss. This England are crying out for a leader, teacher, father-figure and world-class player: a combination rarely found in one man.
Tom Rees, whose Test career had been held back by injury before this autumn, has played out of his skin in the past fortnight. The flanker's promotion could be the way to go before the Six Nations.
"Selection is not our choice," said Borthwick, "it is up to Johnno. Whoever gets the honour of wearing the England shirt has got to do it proud."
Borthwick is proud, and it would be grossly unfair to lay all England's troubles at his feet. But the current run of Tests against the world's best is a public trial of the quiet Cumbrian, and having Johnson sitting as manager above the tunnel is like having Frank Sinatra next to you at a Michael Bublé concert: the comparisons are inevitable. Even more so when yesterday was the fifth anniversary of Johnson's finest hour, the 2003 World Cup victory, for which Borthwick was a 24-year-old bystander.
Only Jamie Noon and Paul Sackey of yesterday's England 22 had participated in the previous heaviest defeat at Twickenham: New Zealand's 41-20 win a scarcely epoch-spanning 24 months ago. All is changing, yet so much more needs to change. Borthwick had been shooed away dismissively by the referee against Australia; here he took a lecture from the Welsh whistler Nigel Owens about the tackle area, after which Phil Vickery (England's captain before Borthwick) sidled up for a word of clarification. "Talk to your captain," advised Owens. Quite right.
Borthwick lifted his team with a couple of line-out steals; equally there were a couple of costly losses. Further awkward comparisons came in the stunning display of his opposite number, Bakkies Botha. The Bok lock with the gallop of a gazelle made try-saving tackleson Delon Armitage – Rees's rival for a light in England's darkness – and Danny Care, and his replacement, Andries Bekker, pummelled Easter away from a probable try. John Smit, South Africa's captain, produced a two-handed pass through his legs on the run. Poor "Borthers". His limelight moment on the wing died with Danny Cipriani's woeful pass.
The spotlight in football has fallen in recent days on John Terry's heads-up leadership of England, while William Gallas was apparently ostracised at Arsenal for disobeying the dressing-room code. Borthwick will never be a code-breaker but he is an enigma as a leader. Sir Clive Woodward, the 2003 manager, says Johnson needs two years to build a team; it would help if they had a heavy hitter front and centre.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies