A clean sweep of victories in the Autumn Nations Series was completed in dramatic circumstances as Marcus Smith landed a penalty with just over a minute left to topple the Springboks 27-26 on Saturday.
South Africa had been poised to complete a comeback win amid a dominant second-half in which only rugged home resistance kept the outcome of a compelling afternoon in doubt.
It went some way to avenging England’s defeat in the 2019 World Cup final but just as importantly it was engineered with emerging prospects such as Smith, Freddie Steward and Jamie Blamire at the forefront.
“I was really pleased for a lot of the youngsters who dug deep and showed grit to stay in the fight rather than just giving up,” veteran prop Marler said.
“The second half went all South Africa’s way and it would have been easy to go ‘oh Christ, this lot are pretty good’.
“Instead, I looked around the group and I saw young boys just puff out their chests and said ‘let’s give this a crack, we’re still in this’.
“There are a lot of boys there who are new to the group. There aren’t many old ones left and we’re clinging on in there.
“That blend of experienced players helping out the youngsters as opposed to them sitting in a hierarchy and being in an environment that doesn’t allow them to thrive and be themselves is long gone.
“The youngsters coming in now feel confident to express themselves in this environment. And us old boys get to come along for the ride.”
While the autumn has seen a new era develop out of the rubble of a disastrous fifth place finish in the Six Nations, it is an old hand who is shaping the march towards the 2023 World Cup on the pitch.
Ninety caps into his England career and Courtney Lawes is in the form of his life and has emerged as the squad’s new leader having taken the captaincy against Tonga and South Africa in the absence of Owen Farrell.
The 32-year-old is a popular appointment and could continue in the role for the Six Nations opener against Scotland on February 5 as Farrell recovers from ankle surgery.
“Courtney’s a people’s captain. He plays for the boys, he talks about his love for the group and will always put his body on the line,” Marler said.
“That’s never in question, it’s the character he is, so he doesn’t actually have to say it. When he speaks everyone listens.
“He doesn’t speak often but he’s a good guy and I’ve really enjoyed playing under him in this campaign. Boys follow him.
“He’s carrying hard, he’s added that extra bit of footwork, bits in attack, and he still does what he does in defence. He’s older than me and he’s still pushing hard, so I’m thinking ‘fair play to you mate’.”
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