After an emphatic start that had seemed to indicate a repeat of England’s 3-0 whitewash of Australia in 2016, Eddie Jones’ side racked up their fifth consecutive loss. The England boss may not be counting the Barbarians game, but I am.
An early 24-3 lead began to vindicate Mike Brown’s inclusion on the wing and Daly’s promotion to fullback, with the duo crossing for a try apiece alongside captain Owen Farrell. England’s speed to the breakdown, counter rucking, superiority in the contact area and accurate support lines had many fans basking in the warm embrace of a return to winning form under Eddie Jones. All seemed rosy and new again in England’s opening quarter, ushering in a new era of dominance.
However, this bubble was soon burst once South Africa found their feet in the 20th minute. A try for Sale Sharks scrum-half Faf de Klerk in his return to the Springbok fold turned all that seemed green and prosperous for England to a harsh, barren landscape. Penalties and inaccuracies suddenly took grip of England’s performance, with 20-year-old lock Nick Isiekwe receiving the shepherd’s crook in Jones’ attempt to restore the momentum of the opening quarter.
Why did England’s performance capitulate? A potential loss of focus following an early lead, the impact of altitude on English bodies or a mixture of both seem the most likely reasons. In reaction to these issues, the familiar view of needless penalties - borne of frustration - hampered any chance of an Anglo resurgence. Star players Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola have been repeat offenders in this area and while they are some of the best in the world in their position, they are doing a thorough job of negating their pedigree.
This result draws certain similarities to the opening blows of the Wales game in the Six Nations. In the opening 20 minutes England surged ahead of the Welsh at Twickenham with two early tries for Jonny May - although this is where the similarities end. Where Wales struggled to reorganise and find their feet after England struck first, the Springboks adjusted to their new system and showed a level of passion and intensity to the South Africa of old.
In particular, the European-based trio of de Klerk, Willie le Roux and Duane Vermulen led the home side’s charge. The trilogy of returning heroes proved monstrous in Johannesburg today and were without a doubt the most influential players. A rather significant tip of the hat to debutant lock RG Snyman, who broke onto the Test scene with one particularly muscular run and an excellent rule over the lineout.
The blond-haired, prince charming lookalike, de Klerk, single-handedly crippled England’s defence at each ruck before even passing the ball. The Sale star threatened so potently ball-in-hand that English defenders were sat down and sucked in, allowing deadly Springbok runners far more room than they would usually have been permitted. From fullback, Le Roux performed the oh-so familiar distributing threat we have come to know in a Wasps jersey, opening up opportunities for a powerful and pacey wing combination on either touch line. While the Thor-like Vermulen carried dutifully in offence and turned half-man half-limpet at the breakdown, stunting many of England’s chances of a comeback.
But most significant to my eye was the fact that England faded out of the game. Whether this is yet another indictment of Jones’ intensive training regime or simply the effect of altitude is yet to be determined. But it was plain to see that the Springboks were able to swat aside the English with increasing ease after a fast-paced opening quarter.
What can be done to win the second Test?
So where do we go? What can Eddie Jones and Owen Farrell do to turn up in Bloemfontein next week and put in a winning performance?
Unfortunately, it takes roughly three to six weeks to adapt to altitude and England only travelled to Johannesburg a few days ago after staging their camp in Durban. Every step must be taken to gain a boom in energy levels. Jones is notorious for intense training regimes, but with the factor of altitude thrown into the mix, one would hope he will finally concede that the players will require a lashing with the three-pronged whip instead of the usual nine-prong this week. The thinness of the South African air is not a component England can control, so they must adjust accordingly.
Indiscipline is a far more complex and problematic issue to resolve, especially when it has been so prevalent for the last two seasons. Since 2017 England’s penalty count has been on the rise and has shown no sign of stopping, despite the subject being highlighted across social media, radio and tv from fans, ex- players and pundits alike. If he hasn’t done it already, Jones needs to have an honest, no holds barred conversation with Itoje and Mako Vunipola, because their obvious talents as rugby players are being overshadowed by their indiscipline.
There is so much more that this England side can produce, but the constant stop- start nature due to brainless, costly penalties has repetitively hamstrung the Red Rose.
The usual processes
An obvious area that the squad will assess in the coming days is the threat of de Klerk and how they must prevent their defensive patterns from altering in the face of a pacey yet surprisingly physical halfback. Far too often the Springbok scrum-half unsettled England’s defence by simply jogging three steps forward. A task defence coach Paul Gustard must put all his energy into before departing for his role with Harlequins next month.
Eddie, put that pen down!
One thing Jones and his coaching contingent must not do is make drastic changes to the side that tasted defeat in Johannesburg. Not to the starting XV anyway. With only one second row left on the park with Isiekwe withdrawn from the field of play in the 35th minute, England’s ability to compete at the lineout was significantly impaired. This did nothing to assist the lineout throwing of substitute hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, who has had issues at set-piece for some years now after converting from prop.
With Joe Launchbury seemingly left out of today’s squad at the last minute, it is reasonable to assume he should be fit and available to start alongside Itoje next week. In addition to Launchbury’s return, either of Isiekwe or Jonny Hill must provide an actual lock from the bench. As talented a rugby player as Brad Shields is, he is no second row and it is probably unfair of Jones to crowbar him into the side out of position for his Test debut.
While Elliot Daly made multiple mistakes at fullback, the benefits of starting him in the 15 jersey are clear to see. A missed grounding that handed Sibusiso Nkosi an avoidable try, two balls kicked out on the full (handing over possession) and the odd positional error could become a small price to pay for allowing Daly to fulfil his potential as a fullback. After all, it has been five years since his last start against an international side in the 15 jersey, which came against the British and Irish Lions.
Jones should also consider the inclusions of Alex Lozowski, Danny Cipriani and Jason Woodward into the 23, offering much needed pace either from the bench or in a starting role. As much as Brown justified his inclusion on the wing, the selection of Henry Slade and Owen Farrell in the centres means England are severely lacking in running threats from deep. Denny Solomona is still finding his feet at Test level and Nathan Earle is yet to feature as a regular starter in the Premiership. Merely dropping Brown from the starting XV is not as simple as many believe.
Another loss on the bounce for England, but the inclusions of Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Tom Curry and Daly at fullback have the potential to change England’s fates once the aforementioned team issues are addressed.
Look out for in-depth analysis in the coming days as I run a comb through England’s performance to shine a slightly brighter light on the events that transpired in Johannesburg today.
1. Mako Vunipola: 5
Carried well, but a lazy yellow card arguably cost England any real hope of a winning comeback.
2. Jamie George: 5
Solid at set-piece and seemed to fill a leadership role in the absence of Dylan Hartley, but ineffective around the park and penalties at the breakdown did not aid his or England’s cause.
3. Kyle Sinckler: 5
Looked far more dynamic and impactful than Dan Cole in the opening 20, but faded out of the game along with the rest of England’s forwards. Reasonable in the scrum considering his opposition.
4. Maro Itoje: 4.5
Any real positives from Itoje’s performance were heavily overshadowed by poor discipline, costing England time and time again with high hits on de Klerk.
5. Nick Isiekwe: 5.5
Operated well enough at the lineout and around the park, but deemed a weak link in the chain by Jones. Culled within 35 minutes of a starting debut.
6. Chris Robshaw: 5
Usually Mr Consistent, Robshaw failed to make the typical understated work rate we have come to know, stopped dead in his tracks by de Klerk.
7. Tom Curry: 7
A rare bright light in England’s defence, before dropping off pace alongside his comrades, made significant contributions at the breakdown.
8. Billy Vunipola: 6.5
A harsh return to Test rugby after over a year absent, fitness faded and an avoidable dropped highball compounded England’s misfortunes.
9. Ben Youngs: 6
Clockwork, but failed to significantly impact the game.
10. George Ford: 7
Operated well at the centre of England’s attacking matrix. The only player not obviously affected by the conditions.
11. Mike Brown: 7
Exceptional power for England’s opening try and did well to handle the blistering pace of the Springboks’ wings. Reliable, but still lacking an attacking spark outside of the opposition’s 10 metre line.
12. Owen Farrell: 6
Showed no drop-off in captaincy while replacing Hartley. As with the rest of his men, slowly washed out of the game.
13. Henry Slade: 6
Far more consistent than his previous international appearances and executed one particularly impressive offload. Unable to trouble South Africa’s defensive line regularly.
14. Jonny May: 7.5
England’s top performer. Once again, England’s score line made far healthier by May’s sprinter-like speed.
15. Elliot Daly: 6
Made his fair share of errors, but showed promising signs as an attacking option. Plenty to come from Daly in the 15 jersey.
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