How England's performance fell apart in Johannesburg in the face of fatigue-induced errors, muscular Springbok monsters and why there are signs of a promising new beginning in Eddie Jones' side.
Fatigue and errors spark England downfall
We saw during the Six Nations how lethargic England looked compared to their Celtic counterparts, sparking the outcry from all but the England set up themselves to see key players rested this summer. This was exaggerated even further last weekend with the added compounding factor of altitude.
After taking an early lead through some intelligent scores, which we will address later, mistakes had begun to creep into England's game. One of the first malfunctions in simple task execution was Chris Robshaw slipping his bind on lineout jumper Maro Itoje, who had managed to read South Africa's lineout call but could not compete after the failed lift.
With a plethora of ambling contributions from England's pack in the build up to this next incident, we see Nick Isiekwe, Kyle Sinckler and Itoje looking ready to drop. Isiekwe, 20, making his starting debut, makes a weak tackle attempt on Springbok enforcer Jean-Luc du Preez, shortly thereafter contrubuting to Sinckler's tackle on Duane Vermeulen by flopping over the breakdown. Maro Itoje and Kyle Sinckler can also be seen visibly struggling, off their feet before half-time.
Three minutes later Isiekwe is the man to pay the price for England's sloppiness, with Jones preferring the mobile option of backrow Brad Shields in the engine room. A tough one to take for Isiekwe, but he must ensure he does not take this to heart and competes well for a spot in next week's 23 with Joe Launchbury expected to return to fitness in a starting role alongside Itoje.
Shields did go a reasonable way to improving the speed to the ruck and general contact area, but there is only so much the Hurricanes captain can do when the forwards around him showed such a drop off in energy levels and accuracy.
We even saw newly instated fullback and star player Elliot Daly cough up a rare, costly mistake on the half hour mark. The 25-year-old is usually one of the most composed players on the park for England, but diving and completely missing the ball in England's dead ball area allowed S'busiso Nkosi to cross for the first of his brace of scores.
An uncharacteristic blunder from Daly and the first example of fatigue-induced errors.
Itoje was also guilty of a treasonous error as a direct result of fatigue-induced panic and led directly to an open try-line for the Boks. Eager to hit Fef de Klerk before he has the chance to either pass or snipe for the line, Itoje over-reads the scenario and shoots out the line before the diminutive Springbok has so much as nudged the ball.
A welcoming gap opens up and like the polite South African he is, de Klerk gracefully accepts the gift and scores the try that sparks the Springboks' comeback.
Itoje was fortunate not to see yellow for a shoulder charge on de Klerk as Saracens teammate Mako Vunipola did in the 63rd minute. Three times in total Itoje hit de Klerk late and high. The England star was lucky to remain on the field and also only be penalised twice.
Despite their system malfunctions for 50 minutes, England manage to gain their second wind in the final ten minutes of the game once de Klerk and Willie Le Roux had spearheaded a five-try comeback for the Springboks. But errors and further setbacks made a late win for Jones' side an impossible task.
The forwards had begun to regain front-foot ball, once again busting through South African defenders while the backs managed to capitalise on the gaps that ensued; one such success coming from Jonny May down the left wing in the 74th minute. The issue comes here in England's inability to capitalise on the Springbok defence scrambling backwards, wasting May's gain line success. Scrum-half Ben Youngs cannot force his legs to carry him to the breakdown in time, with Owen Farrell almost forced off the ball by Bok centre Lukhanyo Am.
Take a close look at the body language of Itoje and Youngs as they finally make it to the ruck. Two broken-looking men.
Another example of a lack of accuracy and energy that cost England came in the 77th minute when Vermeulen managed to kill England's momentum by poaching the ball at the breakdown.
Hughes carries the ball into contact, looking to build upon the positive carries made by Itoje, Slade and Cowan-Dickie in the prior phases. But the Fijian-born backrow is dominated in the contact area by Vermeulen, who then releases Hughes and gets his hands on the ball.
A final and less excusable mistake comes from substitute centre Piers Francis, who steps in at inside centre once Ford leaves the field and Farrell takes the reigns at fly-half. The former Auckland Blues man looks to throw the ball out the back to Slade, who has the chance to combine with speedsters May and Daly and get on the outside of a narrow defensive line. But Francis's pass finds only grass, resulting in England being camped back on their own try line after facing the opportunity to dash up the right side of the field.
Having only arrived from the bench three minutes beforehand, fatigue is not an excuse for Francis to rely on. Instead, we face the cold, harsh reality that when England had designs on a late win, the Saints man succumbed to pressure.
England will undoubtedly be able to attribute a fair portion of these mistakes to the discombobulation of altitude, but ultimately it simply cranked up the pressure and overall South Africa were smarter, stronger and more decisive throughout the full 80 minutes.
Positives clear to see
As terrible as England were during South Africa's comeback, the signs indicating a dominant opening quarter were hugely positive. Urgent to the task and clinical in their execution, Jones' charges showed that they have the capacity to produce an accurate game plan when they are on the ball.
Following Elliot Daly's monstrous 61 metre penalty, Itoje, George, Curry and the Vunipola brothers form a strong, stable maul in record time; a small thing, but the type of accuracies that faded out the game as energy levels declined.
Ford and his surrounding backline were also on top form in the opening minutes, correctly identifying and capitalising on a narrow Springbok defence.
Many will point to South Africa's defensive naivety rather than England's attacking aptitudes, but the identification, communication and interplay to make the most of their chances is a rather underrated skill and one that again, crumbled out of the game.
A few phases later we see Ford back at it, combining with Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola to send Mike Brown over the try line after outmuscling Handre Pollard and Damien de Allende.
The key aspect here is the accuracy in which Ford and Farrell are able to orchestrate around Vunipola's running line. The big man is one of, if not the most, notorious carriers in world rugby, something a new look Springbok side were acutely aware of.
Below we see that initially the foursome of Ford, Farrell, Vunipola and Brown are man- marked, with an extra man (Pollard) in behind acting as sweeper.
It is the threat of Vunipola and Farrell floating in behind him that plays havoc with the Bok defence. Forwards Jean-Luc du Preez and Bongi Mbonambi are forced to commit to Vunipola, while centre Damien de Allende must mark Ford and subsequently track Farrell, who switches in behind Vunipola.
Right winger Nkosi is concerned by the threat of Farrell as a running option sweeping behind Vunipola and is forced to step in from marking Brown. Nkosi pushes up on Farrell in a late attempt to hit the England centre before he can get the pass away to Brown.
This is where the benefit of multiple ball players in midfield comes to fruition, with Farrell moving the ball onto Brown once Nkosi is fully committed, thus creating what should have been a one-on-one for most Test wingers.
Unfortunately Brown is no speed merchant and must deal with both Pollard and de Allende. But England's most capped fullback possesses deceptive strength and even more determination, stepping and fending both de Allende and Pollard.
Later on we see an example of the English attack adapting to the issues their opponents offer. Nkosi has repetitively rushed up and obstructed Ford or Farrell's passing line, blocking the path to unleash outside centre Henry Slade or either wings.
In reaction to this, Ford and May combine to set up Elliot Daly's try in the 13th minute. May hits a short line as Nkosi once again approaches, cutting in between the gap left between the debutant wing and centre Lukhanyo Am.
May is clean through South Africa's defensive line and releases Daly down the left wing.
Sharp, accurate and likely predetermined moves in reaction to the problems placed in front of them. A strong example of the exactness England were able to employ in the first quarter. Ford in particular was exceptional in this early success, operating at the core of England's attacking matrix, but was targeted in defence with great success by de Allende and Nkosi throughout the 80, keeping England peddling backwards and ensuring de Klerk and le Roux could work their magic.
Billy Relentless and determined, but dulled by international hiatus
As expected, the return of Billy Vunipola to England's starting lineup proved hugely beneficial, looking hungry for work and offering a significant threat both as a carrier and a dummy runner. An underrated aspect of Vunipola's game has been his offloading. Here we see the barnstorming number eight tying in defenders once again, this time getting the ball away to Jamie George prior to taking contact.
Although for all the rough edges still to be ground back to world beating sharpness, there was no lack of ambition. Even in the 67th minute Billy was breaking the game line.
Two carries in three of England's phases just highlights the quality of the man. It's been a long 15 month absence from test rugby for Vunipola, but it's only a matter of time before he's back to form and carrying England forward alongside brother Mako. Injuries allowing...
Before the effects of altitude really kicked in, there were plenty of promising signs for England with this particular team selection. With Billy back in the side kicking down doors alongside brother Mako and setting the type of platform Ford and Farrell excel behind, Daly offering promising signs as an attacking option from fullback, Kyle Sinckler possessing genuine pace and carrying options from tighthead and the impact of Tom Curry as an out-and-out openside, the balance in Jones' squad begins to look far more threatening.
Although as useful as Billy was, it is clear he is not yet up to match speed, missing that few extra percent in skill execution.
This rustiness was something South Africa and specifically fly-half Pollard was obviously keen to exploit. Pollard kicked all but one kick-off to the younger of the Vunipola brothers, rewarded with a knock-on in the fifth minute immediately after Brown's score.
A strong showing for Big Billy in his long-awaited return all things considered, but there is work to be done on refining his game. The same must be said of England's game as a whole.
Eddie Jones must now face the task of improving the endurance of England's successful opening moments. The ability, players and game plan is there, but stamina and indiscipline must be addressed if they are to come back and win the series 2-1.
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