As the elation of England’s brave backs-to-the-wall victory over South Africa dims, thoughts turn to the sternest of tests facing them this weekend. One assumes that very few punches are pulled in any team debrief led by Eddie Jones and Owen Farrell and if England are to have any chance at all on Saturday, they will have to be extremely honest about the first 15 minutes against the Springboks.
This may seem hyper-critical after a win but a repeat this time will see the All Blacks over the hill and far away before some people have taken their seats. The first time England had field position, Maro Itoje climbed all over his opposite jumper for a soft penalty. In the first defensive set, Kyle Sinckler strayed offside at the back foot for another soft penalty. One minute after throwing in to a defensive lineout, South Africa had 3 points on the board without having had to do anything.
Several more penalties followed culminating in a yellow card for Itoje. Meanwhile, South Africa put up 3 high kicks and managed to reclaim them all in the air. The little possession England did have they kicked away to no positive effect. They invited pressure on to themselves repeatedly. That the score was 3-3 after half an hour was little short of miraculous.
New Zealand punish indiscipline ruthlessly, they have one of the best kick-to-retrieve games in the world, the best kick return game and they have the leadership to make the right calls at the right time to capitalise on their dominance. Therefore if England repeat the trick of giving away penalties, not dominating in the air, kicking aimlessly and conceding field position, they will struggle.
England can take credit for their defensive effort but the main reason for that scoreline was South Africa’s remarkable profligacy in attack. Three times Malcolm Marx overthrew, twice within 10 metres of the line. Whoever kept calling the ball to the back of the lineout deserves some blame but England were blessed to face one of the world’s best hookers on an off day. On several occasions South Africa lost the ball in contact or knocked on in open play. It was their own errors which checked their momentum more than England’s efforts.
It is a huge feather in the English cap to win a match in which they spent so much time without possession or territory. They raised their game significantly in the second half, but the point which Jones and Farrell must hammer home is that it will not matter a jot how they play after half time this weekend if they repeat their first half performance because the game will be long gone.
The greater intensity, discipline and skill which they showed in the second half, and the sheer grit to dog out a result, should form the blueprint for the weekend. Even then they will know that they are unlikely to beat the All Blacks without crossing the whitewash so must be more accurate when they do create opportunities. Elliot Daly seemed to inherit the aversion to passing of his predecessor in the 15 shirt and should have released Jonny May on a couple of occasions. They also conceded some silly penalties when in good positions.
Nobody outside the camp is expecting an England win, a sad state of affairs given how much this game was being hyped a couple of years ago, yet after such a disappointing year a strong and gutsy showing will allow the first semblances of positive momentum to build. To achieve this they must be honest enough to admit that the Springboks let them off the hook in the first half. The men in black are unlikely to be so charitable.
By Stuart Peel