England’s first test against South Africa at the weekend is a difficult one to try and analyse. Going down 42-39, on paper it was not such a surprising margin of defeat (indeed the Rugby Blog’s Jacob Bassford predicted a 3-point Springbok victory in his preview). However it was the manner of capitulation from a dominant winning position, with a mid-order collapse more familiar to those of us that follow England’s cricketing exploits, that has left supporters frustrated and with a sour taste in their mouths.
England raced out to a 24-3 lead, showcasing some of the most exciting attacking rugby we have seen in an age. An astonishing altitude-assisted penalty from 61 metres by Elliot Daly started us off, before tries from Mike Brown, Daly and Owen Farrell seemed to give England an unassailable lead. Indeed, I cannot recall the last time a tier one match-up saw a 21 point lead overhauled.
But overhauled it was. England shipped 39 points in a little over a half of rugby. In a similar manner to the non-test match against the Barbarians, South Africa drew England into a recklessly fast-paced game and cut their defence apart seemingly at will.
England missed 19 tackles, with a completed percentage on 86% – not the best, but not actually as terrible as you might have thought. But when the defensive line was broken England failed to reform and staunch the flood of South African players rushing for the line – particularly down the blindside, where England conceded four of their five tries.
I was left questioning just what defensive system they were trying to employ. It did not seem to be a blitz defence, or a more traditional drift. With the best defensive teams, there is a discernible pattern – just look at the Saracens team – but it is absent at the moment with England.
When questioned on conceding 14 tries in two games, Jones bristled and responded ‘Fourteen in two games? What is the other game you are talking about? That [barbarians match] wasn’t a test match.’ While he has a point – we didn’t count the Barbarians game in their record equally winning run, so should not suddenly raise its status in the face of defeat – there is still a historic fragility to England’s defence.
I raised it in my column the other week, with England conceding over 20 points in their final three games of the Six Nations. But look back further, and particularly away from home, and it has never been too watertight. On that infamous whitewashing tour of Australia in 2016, England shipped 28 points in the first test and 40 in the third. In Argentina last year, they conceded 34 and 25. All four of those matches ended in victory for England and that leads to perhaps overlooking any defensive concerns. After all, Australia in particular, they were landmark victories and rightly celebrated.
A few people have mentioned it in the comments on the site, but England do seem to be missing Jonathan Joseph at 13 – a canny defender, he helps shore up the backline. Alas his drop in attacking form has removed a defensive lynchpin. There is also the absence of Mike Brown at 15. Despite his supposed attacking limitations (although he made a statement to the contrary with his brilliant finish on Saturday) he is a complete rock at the back. Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly, who have filled his boots since, while thrilling counter-attacking runners, do not provide same solidity.
I am as guilty as any in calling for a little more adventure from the back and would have picked Daly at 15 too. But he had a poor game on Saturday; his positioning was sometimes off and he was directly at fault for one try when he missed grounding the ball. Brown’s defensive play is also not as good stationed on the wing as he doesn’t have the necessary raw pace. I expect a reversion for the second test, with Daly back on the wing and Brown restored to fullback.
With Paul Gustard leaving for Harlequins, there is a big job awaiting the incoming defence coach. I would propose one man for the job. Shaun Edwards has been consistently excellent for Wales, and following another admirable defensive display against Argentina at the weekend, he must be by far the leading candidate. He allegedly showed interest in the Quins job, so must be open to a move, if it is the right one, and while it would likely take a king’s ransom to prise him away from the WRU, if I were England and he showed the faintest glimmer of interest, I would make that happen.
Alongside defensive woes, England – one again – had a poor game discipline wise. They conceded 12 penalties and two free kicks. As with the Six Nations, this continuously killed any momentum they had and because of the high altitude, the South African’s could not only clear their lines with ease, but immediately transform it into an attacking opportunity with a lineout deep in the English half.
Sir Clive Woodward was particularly critical of this in the Daily Mail, stating ‘it’s about time this group of England players started taking responsibility for their own actions … England need to start getting a bit cranky with each other and calling each other out for the basic mistakes they keep making.
‘The majority of penalties are down to sloppy play, slow thought process, panicking under pressure, poor technique, dull play, poor understanding of the laws’
I don’t always agree with Woodward, but here he is spot on. Rectifying this issue is something which has to come from within the group – the leaders need to stand up and be counted, listen to the referee, start playing smart rugby, and take teammates to task if they are not adapting.
England’s kicking from hand was also poor and here I think altitude played a factor. Jones commented about there being no point in being based at altitude in the run up to the first test and while, from a medical perspective, I can see that rationale, it could have benefited their kicking. There were a troubling number of kicks which went straight out on the full and the fact that they were getting about a 10-metre boost meant without a bit of time to adjust to this, England were regularly hoisting the ball far further than they intended. The players’ range was off and more time to acclimatise to the conditions certainly would not have hurt.
There were some positives. That first 20 minutes featured some glorious and intelligent attacking rugby. And if they had ended up victorious, perhaps I could have written far more about that. Johnny May was good on the wing – and went looking for work more than he has previously. There were touches of class throughout, it has just been buried by the negative.
It does not need massive overhaul. England will be better next game: Ben Youngs and Billy Vunipola were rusty after little game time and will improve, hopefully Joe Launchbury will be back at lock. A small shift of players position-wise, with Brown and Daly swapping over, and maybe Brad Shields coming into the 6 shirt.
This series is still very much alive but there are fundamental things to sort out if we are going to beat the boks.
By Henry Ker