England 28 South Africa 31
Rugby is all about momentum and, at the moment, England are going backwards at a rate of knots.
During the Six Nations it seemed they were being carried on the crest of a wave that could take them all the way to the World Cup. A positive summer followed by an impressive autumn, so the theory went, and they would be right in the mix come the tournament next year.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Two three-point defeats to New Zealand and South Africa, following on from three successive losses to the all Blacks during the summer tour, is nothing to be embarrassed about. But late tries have skewed both results, with England never in with a chance of winning either game approaching the latter stages.
Now they face Samoa and Australia looking to save face and regain confidence. Saturday’s Test with the former has all the hallmarks of a potential banana skin.
“Samoa will smell blood,” admitted Billy Vunipola, and it was hard not to agree. And what is particularly concerning is some of the totem poles of Stuart Lancaster’s reign are becoming causes for concern.
Tom Wood is struggling, Courtney Lawes not at his best and Vunipola failing to impose himself. Mike Brown has so far been unable to match the heights he reached last season, while the paucity of options in attack are worrying with England losing the first-half 13-6 to S Africa on Saturday despite having 71% of the territory and 63% possession.
But the biggest concern is Owen Farrell. The fly-half looks lost, a glaring weak spot previously as strong as steel. The 23-year-old – and it is worth remembering how young he is – is just recovering from a leg injury suffered in September, but his performance against the Springboks was his worst in an England shirt.
From the moment he gave debutant Anthony Watson the most brutal of hospital passes after running the ball from under his own posts after just nine minutes, this was a day he will want to forget. Restarts went out on the full, kicks from hand were poor and one attempted up-and-under actually went backwards. Lancaster is a loyal coach who will stick by his players but George Ford is almost certain to start against Samoa and, suddenly, there’s an unexpected vacancy at fly-half with the World Cup less than a year away.
“Owen will be frustrated with one or two things, such as the ball going out on the full from the kick-off, things like that,” said Lancaster.
“They are the little things that come back and hurt you. When you are a key position like 10 it is important.
“But he has been outstanding for England in the past and wasn’t at fault for us losing. You lose because of the collective, not one person.
“We have a lot of faith in Owen as a player and person and will be sticking by him in terms of his development within the squad, without a doubt.”
The reality, as Lancaster is aware, is South Africa had to do very little to win at Twickenham. There was a nervousness in the England team and crowd that can be blamed in part on the sadist at the RFU who decided that four successive games against the All Blacks was a good idea.
England’s worst run since 2006 is likely to lead to a siege mentality, with the players talking the talk even if they are at present unable to walk the walk.
“It’s not the end of the world,” said Wood. “The fact we have lost by two really close margins in two really competitive games against the two best teams in the world means it isn’t back to the drawing board and everyone on suicide watch. We have to keep our heads high and keep believing in what we are trying to implement.
“We understand we will come under a lot of pressure now. The heat is going to come on from the rugby media and the rugby public.
“Everyone relates everything to the World Cup and puts it in that context now and for us we just have to stay tight as a group, keep plugging on and make sure we keep doing the basics well and preparing as well as we can.”
And certain things – most notably the set piece and the driving maul that led to two quick-fire tries on Saturday – are working well. But wingers Watson and Jonny May barely touched the ball and South Africa, who were clearly fired up by their defeat to Ireland, were simply efficient.
“It was a very big win, particularly after that defeat to Ireland,” said fly-half Pat Lambie.
But this game was all about England, whose handling errors and poor game management meant they beat themselves more than anything. They need to start moving forward again.
Scorers for England: Tries: Wilson, Morgan, Barritt Pens: Farrell (2), Ford Cons: Farrell (2)
Scorers for South Africa: Tries: Serfontein, Reinach, Burger Pens: Lambie (3) Cons: Lambie (2) Drop goal: Lambie
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, D Vermeulen.
Referee: S Walsh (Australia).
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