Resurgent Springboks seal series victory with game to spare while England wallow in self-inflicted wounds.
By Ali Stokes
Rassie Erasmus has enjoyed a flying start to his tenure in charge of the Springboks, leading them to a series win with a game in hand against Eddie Jones’ England earlier today.
After the worst two-year period in their history, it’s fair to say South Africa are back up and running again under Erasmus’s watch. The returning Duane Vermeulen once again set the pace, tirelessly breaking the gain line with HGV- worthy torque while conjuring up momentum-killing turnovers on England ball. Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux were not able to impose the same attacking threat as runners this week, but a more measured, controlling performance from the Premiership-based duo proved instrumental in a series-winning performance.
As for Jones’ England, the Australian Head Coach will likely be tearing what hair he has left in the face of an inexplicably high number of penalties and handling errors. English fans will have been plagued with flashbacks to the late noughties, post-Clive Woodward era for 60-minutes today, as for a second week running a promising early lead resulted in crushing defeat by the time Romain Poite blew the final whistle.
In the early stages England had seemed more streetwise than the previous week’s defeat. Elliot Daly had settled slightly more comfortably into the fullback jersey, while George Ford found early success in kicking to inexperienced South African wing and converted centre Aphiwe Dyantyi. Billy Vunipola looked near his best after a midfield break that led to England’s first score through Mike Brown. A familiar running order to the first Test loss in Johannesburg last weekend.
However, alongside this promising beginning it was clear to see there was an over-emotional, abrasive edge to Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje and captain Owen Farrell. The Saracens trio were plainly keen to drag England over the line by the scruff of the neck, but hit the wrong balance of intensity and indiscipline. Unnecessary niggle borne of this attitude undoubtedly played a role in the rot of England’s performance. Mako and Itoje were fortunate to remain on the field after the former sent a slap to the head of prone Springbok blindside Pieter-Steph du Toit and Itoje put in yet another late, high challenge on de Klerk. Painful irony following Itoje’s mid-week claim that England would rectify their discipline issues this weekend.
Farrell is clearly a captain that the England squad members will gladly follow into battle, but he will have to learn the balance of keeping the team’s emotions simmering under the surface, instead of lashing out in the form of costly indiscretions.
While this indiscipline clearly hampered England’s ambitions of victory today, the crippling blows came in the form of handling errors and the rather more concerning shellacking at the hands of the South African pack.
England simply could not live with the Springboks’ physicality, with Billy Vunipola standing as the only man able to live with the biltong-powered Springbok forwards unit. A further blow for the Red Rose as the barnstorming number eight was forced from the field just moments before the half-time whistle with an undetermined injury. To add insult, Vunipola’s replacement, Nathan Hughes, saw himself sat on the sidelines for ten minutes after the brainless decision to knock the ball out of the hands of de Klerk at the ruck, in plain view of the touch judge.
While the penalties and handling errors are a poignant concern for Jones at current, they are for the most part, a direct result of decision-making and a lack of concentration, which can be fixed over time. However, when your first choice pack is bullied quite so aggressively as they were today, a far more complex and challenging task arises. With the likes of Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Brad Shields and Tom Curry all bearing a wider skillset than their predecessors, there is a chance Jones will feel he must return to his tried and tested, one dimensional options who were either out injured, left at home or dropped from the match day 23 altogether.
The return of Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, Chris Robshaw and James Haskell may be fuelled by the forward pack’s inability to provide a stable platform for their backline. A challenging week of decisions for Jones as he adjudicates on his decision to stick with his new-look pack and sand down the rough edges, or return to the dependable, yet restricted old guard.
A dispiriting performance for onlookers today, with only a few positives to be taken away from a sixth consecutive defeat.
The slightly dim, brightisde of life
On a side of the coin that many will struggle to see today, there are still positives to be taken from England’s defeats to the Springboks over the last fortnight.
Tom Curry has offered an option at openside finally able to produce turnovers, assuming a solid body position to either pilfer or delay opposition’s ball. The 20-year-old also showed a few glimpses of his passing game at the Free State Stadium earlier today. Link play that could prove fortuitous if the rest of the side’s game can be stabilised.
A back three of Jonny May, Mike Brown and Elliot Daly seems to have struck a promising combination; with the former two finding excellent attacking form while Brown produced what may have been England’s standout performance from the left wing. Physical in the contact area, a nuisance at the breakdown and his skills as a seasoned fullback may well be forcing Jones to consider keeping the 32-year-old Quins stalwart in the 11 jersey.
The impact of Danny Cipriani off the bench was eye-catching and produced the most persuasive argument yet for his inclusion in the starting line-up, proving to the England coaching staff that his club form is directly transferable to the Test arena. Where Ford struggled to get England’s attack up and running in the face of adversity, Cipriani managed to strike fear into the Springbok defence in the final 15 minutes, setting Elliot Daly clean through the South African defence moments after stepping onto the pitch. The Gloucester-bound pivot well and truly outperformed incumbent fly-half George Ford, who for some time has had a tendency to be shut out of the game when his forward pack are not gaining the upper hand.
A hat-tip for Chiefs’ tighthead Harry Williams, whose appearance from the bench provided much improved scrummaging and carrying to Sinckler’s performance. The Exeter prop may well have persuaded Jones to utilise Sinckler from the bench next week, with Williams offering a more stable option at set piece and around the park.
Overall, the more expansive, attacking and mobile brand of rugby England have displayed this summer is promising and where possible, Jones should avoid drastic changes to the side that took to the field today. The introduction of Williams up front to stabilise the scrum and the injection of more physical option at outside centre could help England find firmer footing. Cipriani may even be able to take the reigns as England’s starting fly-half if Jones decides that Ford’s three-year supremacy has come to an end. Although, this would cause a certain amount or disruption to a very settled 9-12 axis that Jones may not be comfortable introducing at this time.
All these positives will however be thrown to the wayside if Jones cannot stamp out his side’s indefensible penalty count and handling issues. The demoralising showing at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein earlier today simply does not fly for a side with the quality of playing staff and resources available to England. Jones may have corrected many of his selection errors in the Six Nations, but the true test of his coaching ability will be the time it takes to eradicate the inaccuracies and indiscretions in England’s performance over the last two weeks.
1. Mako Vunipola: 4
Made good impacts early on but failed to reproduce and cost England with poor indiscipline.
2. Jamie George: 5
Couldn’t transfer his Saracens and Lions form to the England jersey, inadequate in contact area.
3. Kyle Sinckler: 4
Well and truly bested in the scrum, as with George, could not show his carrying game.
4. Joe Launchbury: 6
A reliable lineout option, couldn’t make the dents on the game line he showcased in the Six Nations, but did not let the side down.
5. Maro Itoje: 6
Too much niggle and poor discipline cost England greatly, but showed an improvement in his carrying and passing game this week.
6 .Brad Shields: 7
Added a lineout option and carried well in the loose, unfortunate to be denied a try by some intelligent defence from Gloucester-bound Franco Mostert.
7. Tom Curry: 7.5
Brought breakdown and link play almost unheard of in an England jersey. Although couldn’t physically impose himself as he would have liked. Influential performance.
8. Billy Vunipola: 7.5
Looked very sharp before being removed seconds before half-time, vital midfield carry led to Brown try. Blocked from tackling opposite man Duane Vermeulen for his try by Ben Youngs.
9. Ben Youngs: 6
Could not aid in game line struggles, cleared well at times but inconsistency an on-going concern. Main issues came from the men up front and outside.
10. George Ford: 5
Looked lost at times and slowly fell off the pace of the game. Outshone by fleeting Cipriani appearance.
11. Mike Brown: 8
Standout performer for England. Strong in defence, producing one turnover and showcasing some deft handling skills for May’s try. Will not get the praise others in his position would.
12. Owen Farrell: 6
Could not manage the over spilling emotions of his pack and could not execute the usual cool, calm performance.
13. Henry Slade: 6
Held his own in the opening minutes, but being utilised as a hard running centre did not suit his game. As with Ford, lost pace with the game as time went on.
14. Jonny May: 7
Strong in the air and displayed his usual searing pace. Solidifying his spot as a guaranteed starter once Nowell and Watson return to fitness.
15. Elliot Daly: 7
More comfortable in the jersey than the previous week, excellent handing when joining the line but did not spot the pass to send May over for his second during the final 15 minutes.
16. Luke Cowan-Dickie 7, 17. Joe Marler 7, 18. Harry Williams, 19. Mark Wilson 6, 20. Nathan Hughes 4.5, 21. Ben Spencer 6.5, 22. Danny Cipriani 7.5, 23. Denny Solomona 5.5.
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