England were undone by dozy play and debilitating errors as they sank to a second successive three-point loss to a southern hemisphere superpower. Chris Robshaw’s team had been retained en bloc from the previous week’s defeat by New Zealand, save for one change due to injury, but blew the chance to prove to be called worthy World Cup contenders, as South Africa’s greater precision under pressure took over.
It would be wrong to say England’s pain at another loss 10 months out from the all-important global tournament was entirely self-inflicted. The Springboks are the world’s No 2 ranked team – behind only the All Blacks – and even when they were down to 14 men, with Victor Matfield in the sin-bin, they had the class to hurt England with a try brilliantly finished by another veteran forward, Schalk Burger, in the 53rd minute. It was a crucial moment as it brought a crushing halt to a good spell for England in which tries by Davey Wilson – the prop’s first in his 39th Test – and replacement No 8 Ben Morgan, both converted by Owen Farrell had dug them out of a hole and tied the scores at 20-20.
With Burger latching on to fellow flanker Marcell Coetzee to score from a line-out drive, despite South Africa being under-manned at the throw, the momentum swung back to the visitors. All the more so five minutes later when Dylan Hartley was shown a yellow card for a daft stamp on Duane Vermeulen. It came in one of many mauls as each side tried to out-muscle the other in that facet; a juicy heavyweight battle within the war that brought England those tries.
But when Dave Attwood conceded a penalty for grabbing Bakkies Botha in a line-out and Pat Lambie kicked the goal to put South Africa 28-20 up, it was as deflating for the Twickenham crowd as the scores by Wilson and Morgan had been a thrilling response to South Africa’s first-half dominance. George Ford, who did enough as a replacement for Farrell to suggest he should start both remaining autumn internationals against Samoa and Australia, kicked a penalty, yet still England blundered. Two line-outs in Bok territory ended respectively with Brad Barritt woefully isolated, while Webber’s throw-in was stolen by Vermeulen. Then Ford kicked a ball out on the full, Lambie dropped a goal at the other end, and Barritt’s late, late try at the corner was not enough.
“We need to be smarter in the way we apply ourselves,” was how England’s coach Stuart Lancaster, explained it, and he promised a “few changes” against Samoa, although that would have been the case anyway. His pack, as against New Zealand, was formidable in the set-piece, but the team need to tighten up everywhere else as they digest a depressing 11th loss with one draw in 12 meetings with the Boks since 2006. Before that England were on a run of seven wins.
Kyle Eastmond had been chosen ahead of Billy Twelvetrees to solve a playmaking problem but an early scuttle by the Bath centre ended with the ball lost in the tackle. Billy Vunipola suffered similar ignominy, for all his willing carries. In defence, Mike Brown’s slowness in covering back obliged Farrell to get in a muddle with Anthony Watson and hand South Africa the first points with a penalty by Lambie after 10 minutes. Then, most heinously, Danny Care dithered over a pass to Eastmond behind a ruck and allowed Jan Serfontein an interception score, run in from the Springbok 10-metre line. Care had earlier led England out to mark his 50th cap.
Lambie’s conversion for 10-0 was followed by a break from Brown that ended with more imprecision. The Durban-born Barritt strove to breach the gain-line but it was basic. At least England had three points in the 28th minute when Farrell kicked a penalty, but even that came after a promising position was snuffed out by Attwood on one wing and Eastmond and Jonny May on the other cramping England’s space.
It cannot be ignored that some good players are absent injured – Alex Corbisiero, Joe Launchbury and Manu Tuilagi are three who spring to mind – but it appeared as if the likes of Care and Brown were on different wavelengths despite hundreds of matches for country and club. When England were beating Wales and Ireland here last spring, Brown might have been thought of as a candidate for World Player of the Year, but Vermeulen and Willie le Roux showed here why they are among the five vying for that honour tomorrow.
Farrell cut the lead to 13-6 on 37 minutes, and England were further relieved when Lambie slid a 40-metre penalty wide just before the interval. Nevertheless there was a 14-point gap 43 seconds into the second half when Le Roux caught Lambie’s chip and slipped a scoring pass to scrum-half Cobus Reinach. It was stretching rugby common sense to believe South Africa would make the same number of errors as in their 29-15 loss to Ireland eight days ago – and they didn’t.
England: M Brown; A Watson, B Barritt, K Eastmond, J May; O Farrell (G Ford, 65), D Care (B Youngs, 65); J Marler (M Mullan, 67), D Hartley (R Webber, 70), D Wilson (K Brookes, 73), D Attwood (G Kruis, 67), C Lawes, T Wood (Webber 61-70), C Robshaw (capt), B Vunipola (B Morgan, 44).
South Africa: W le Roux; JP Pietersen, J Serfontein, J de Villiers, B Habana; P Lambie, C Reinach; T Mtawarira (T Nyakane, 75), A Strauss (B du Plessis, 61), J du Plessis (C Oosthuizen, 65), E Etzebeth (B Botha, 65), V Matfield, M Coetzee, S Burger (T Mohoje 78), D Vermeulen.
Referee: S Walsh (Australia).
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