One of my favourite rivalries in all sport is England v Wales in rugby. I say one of my favourites, because at times it is bloody awful being an Englishman. I think back to 2005 and 2013 and I shudder. But that’s partly why it’s so great – the vast swings of fortune make the times of elation all the sweeter and the shameless gloating all the more graceless...and enjoyable. But, shockingly, there appears to be a similarity, a common flaw, emerging between the two nations – the inability to beat the ‘Big Three’ on a regular basis.
Wales have, for so long, had a phenomenal international side with bucket loads of power and intelligence in the forwards, and bags of pace and punch out wide but – no matter how many Grand Slams or Six Nations titles they’ve picked up, the defeat of a Southern Hemisphere side, even when that side may not be at its strongest, appears to be a bridge too far. England traditionally have been a reliable source of victories against the Southerners, but of late, that record is looking rather flimsy. Before this last weekend, they had won just 2 of 12 games against the big boys...and lost 11 of their last 12 against the mighty South Africans. When it happens that many times, it stops being bad luck. It becomes a habit. And after a narrow but ultimately convincing defeat against the All Blacks, the questions on how England can take that next step, and break the cycle, were inevitably being raised ahead of Saturday’s clash with the Springboks at Twickenham.
Like last week though, England came roaring out of the blocks, except that this time, crucially, they didn’t pick up the five points that their dominance demanded. The pack had done well initially in the opening 10 minutes to win some good go forward ball, with Dave Attwood and Chris Robshaw making some important metres and Kyle Eastmond showing some glimpses of his quick feet, but time and again the ball slipped free in the greasy conditions, with Billy Vunipola guilty on more than one occasion. It may have been wet though, but the ball protection from the big eight was simply not up to scratch. It proved to be an ominous sign.
If England looked to be shooting themselves in the foot in attack, then it was the same story on the back foot. At one point, Owen Farrell field a kick in his own 22, did well to avoid the South African chasers but then, instead of hoofing the ball clear, decided to throw debutant Anthony Watson a hospital pass of a switch that saw the youngster turned over. England were grateful that, from the subsequent attack, Willie Le Roux couldn’t hang onto Bryan Habana’s pass with the line at his mercy, but Pat Lambie did add three points from a resulting penalty. Things continued in a similar vein just a couple of minutes later, when centre Jan Serfontein intercepted a ponderous and blindingly obvious Danny Care pass on halfway to canter over, and suddenly the Springboks held a 10 – 0 lead after just 16 minutes.
England did claw their way back into the game, with two Owen Farrell penalties sandwiching another Lambie effort in the remainder of the first half, but yet again it could have been so much better for the men in white. Firstly Dave Attwood did well to carve a gap through the big green line but he wasn’t able to – or didn’t want to – find the quicker men in the shape of Care and Watson outside him, when both would have been odds on to score in the corner. That being said, on replay it didn’t look as if either were particularly busting a gut to get with the big lock, so perhaps it’s unfair to lay all the blame at his size 22 feet. Johnny May, who – through no real fault of his own – was a spectator through most of the game, also went close in the opposite corner with some quick feet, but yet again that final metre, that final broken tackle, seemed elusive, and they had to settle for being 13 – 6 down at half time. At least they were still within striking distance.
But not for long. England’s team talk would have been about being ruthless with the ball in hand, but it was the Springboks who gave the real lesson within the first 30 seconds of the restart. Lambie, faced with an onrushing England defence, dabbed a gorgeous chip over the top for Le Roux to collect, with the full back timing his pass to perfection to give scrum Cobus Reinach – who was having a solid game – a free run to the line. South Africa held a 20 – 6 lead. Game over?
Not quite. England may have many critical faults but determination is certainly not one of them. After Victor Matfield was shown yellow for pulling down a rolling maul (after referee Steve Walsh had given a warning), England pulled level with two tries in the space of three minutes. Firstly, Robshaw elected to kick for the corner from the subsequent penalty and, from there, the pack rumbled over the line with a powerful and well-disciplined rolling maul, with prop David Wilson the man with the honour of coming up with the ball. Then, shortly after the restart, substitute Ben Morgan barrelled his way through 3 tacklers after another powerful maul – this one travelling almost 30 metres – splintered apart. Farrell’s conversions took the score to 20 apiece, and England finally had their opponents on the ropes.
The pack had certainly not been out-powered by the Springboks as previous England sides have been, and their work in the set piece – they were especially impressive in the scrum – was giving the backline quality ball that they couldn’t take advantage of. But they had been outsmarted at the breakdown, with South Africa picking their times to attack the England ruck, and it was from a resulting penalty and the subsequent attacking lineout that the big green machine got a mauling try of their own in the 53rd minute to pull away by 5 points once again, with the magnificent Schalk Burger the man to emerge with the glory.
England’s hopes took another blow when Dylan Hartley was yellow carded for clumsy use of the feet (read: stamping) on an opposition player, although opinion was divided in how much he knew about it. What was clear though was that the victim, Duane Vermeulen, was cynically on the ground trying to pull the maul down by the players’ ankles – in the ‘good old days’, he would have deserved (and expected) a good shoeing. South Africa couldn’t make the most of the extra man despite dominating the territory, thanks to some woeful kicking from Farrell, with England’s defence – led by Brad Barritt and substitute Matt Mullan – proving very stingy indeed. Lambie and George Ford – belatedly brought on for Farrell – exchanged three pointers, before England again began to spark into life in the last 10 minutes, searching for a score to bring them that much sought after win against the South Africans. Although the introductions of Ford and Ben Youngs gave the hosts much needed fluency and urgency in attack, the clearout speed was not efficient enough and the likes of Vermeulen, Burger and Marcel Coetzee were able to force turnovers time and again. And with four minutes to play, Lambie added a drop goal to seal a win for the visitors and put the cherry on top of a fine individual display.
Some slick handling and good lines – finally – put Brad Barritt over for a well taken score with a minute left to play, but it would prove to be nothing but a consolation in a 28 - 31 defeat. England, once again, had fallen to a top side, despite being in a position to win the game.
Rightly, the pressure will begin to mount and the questions will be asked. Why is England’s kicking game so disjointed? Why are the attacks largely lateral, slow and predictable? Why was the clear-out ineffective? Why do the back row not hunt out in the wider channels (as do Read and Vermeulen) to take advantage of their size and power against smaller opponents? Unfortunately, England seem to be throwing up more questions than answers at the moment...and time is running out to find them.
UPDATE: I’ve just read that, unbelievably, Lancaster has ignored the in-form outside centre, Jonathan Joseph, and brought in Luther Burrell – who has been merely solid for Northampton this year. There are also horrible rumours that Farrell – who is a great player but is short of form and fitness at the moment – will be pushed to play 12 this week. The logic of the England set up is currently very hard to understand.
Mike Brown – 8 – Much more like it from the Quins man. Rock solid at the back and made plenty of promising surges in attack. England’s best back by some distance.
Anthony Watson – 5 – It didn’t go his way on his first start. He wasn’t helped by some hospital passes but some dropped high balls didn’t do his cause much good.
Brad Barritt – 6 – Ran hard and defended well all day, but he lacks the raw physical attributes to be a real threat in attack. Not a natural distributor either.
Kyle Eastmond – 7 – Defended his channel well once again and showed some lively moments in attack in the first half, but didn’t have many opportunities in the second period.
Johnny May – 6 – Made yards whenever he had the ball and made his tackles, but was largely anonymous.
Owen Farrell – 4 – It may seem like a harsh mark given his excellent goal kicking, but it was all pretty off from the Sarries man. His distribution was laboured, his kicking from hand poor and his decision making questionable. Needs to find some form with his club.
Danny Care – 5 – Some lively scampers and better kicks than last week but, like Farrell, his decision making was poor and his passing was very, very laboured, handing one crucial try to the Boks on a plate. Disappointing on his 50th cap.
Joe Marler – 7 – Scrummaged well and made his tackles, and sought to get his hands on the ball – although he doesn’t seem as much of a threat in that regard as in previous years.
Dylan Hartley – 6 – The lineout was solid once again and he worked his socks off in the loose, but that yellow card was critical, although he can feel slightly aggrieved at it.
Dave Wilson – 7 – Capped a very decent scrummaging display with a well-earned try from a rolling maul. Sought to involve himself throughout.
Dave Attwood – 7 – Another robust display in the middle of the park and took the physical display to the Boks. Will be disappointed he didn’t pass when he had a chance to put Watson in, though.
Courtney Lawes – 6 – Brave and committed, he flew into rucks and tackles without a thought to last week’s concussion – but he had a limited impact on the game.
Tom Wood – 6 – A couple of silly penalties but he was more prominent than last week, with one smart break from a ruck nearly leading to a breakaway try.
Chris Robshaw – 6 – A turnover here and there was good but he struggled to have an influence with the ball in hand.
Billy Vunipola – 5 – Yes, he made some impressive rumbles, but that was when he actually hung onto the ball – something he failed to do far too many times.
Subs – 8 – Ben Morgan was colossal when he came on and added real venom to the England carrying game, whilst George Ford and Ben Youngs added pace and creativity – but too late. Matt Mullan and Keiran Brookes also continue to impress with their cameos.
Willie Le Roux – 8 – It is the sign of a class player when you can dip in and out of a game, but your interventions ooze quality. That’s exactly what Le Roux was like on Saturday.
JP Pietersen – 6 – Solid in defence and carried hard but it wasn’t really a day for the wingers to shine.
Jan Serfontein – 7 – A well-read intercept and the powerful former IRB Young Player of the Year seems very comfy in a Springbok jersey.
Jean De Villiers – 6 – Got beaten by Eastmond a couple of times in the first half but recovered well to lead his team back out in front when they were up against it.
Bryan Habana – 6 – I wasn’t really sure if he was playing, to be honest. Chased kicks well but that was about it.
Pat Lambie – 9 – A great response for being out of the team for a couple of tests. He distributed superbly and he varied his game to perfection.
Cobus Reinach – 7 – The scrum half was a little slow with his box kicking early on but tidied it up in the second period to great effect, and got on the end of a fine try.
The Beast – 6 – I can’t be bothered to spell out his real name, but the Beast was unusually quiet on Saturday. Unable to put Wilson under much pressure, we also didn’t see him with the ball in hand much either.
Adriaan Strauss – 7 – A busy display in the loose and a reliable lineout...it’s difficult to think of many mistakes by the Cheetahs hooker.
Jannie Du Plessis – 5 – Under the cosh a fair bit at scrum time and didn’t offer much around the park, either.
Eben Etzebeth – 6 – A solid display by the towering lock. Dominated the lineout but seems to be lacking that real bite that he had when he first came onto the scene.
Victor Matfield – 6 – His yellow card was costly but aside from that he was athletic and a intelligent around the park, pressuring England’s breakdown.
Marcel Coetzee – 7 – A bit of an unsung hero for the Springboks, the openside flanker made more tackles than anyone else and was an endless-bundle of energy and aggression throughout.
Schalk Burger – 9 – Plagued the England breakdown and was a wall in defence. He timed his big clearouts intelligently to cause maximum disruption and won good turnover ball on three occasions. Man of the match.
Duane Vermeulen – 7 – A quiet day from one of the players of the year and was kept quiet by some good, low England tackling. Became more prominent in the wider channels in the second half.
Subs – 7 – Botha was a galvanising influence in the pack, Bismarck Du Plessis was as busy as ever upon his introduction and Coenie Oosthuizen had a barrelling carry late on.
Wales 17 – 13 Fiji: Wales were given a scare by Fiji in a hideously imprecise display at the Millennium Stadium. Tries from George North and Alex Cuthbert, plus a penalty try, had given the hosts control but they were unable to add further scores despite playing against 14 men for over a half when Campese Ma’afu was sent off for his second yellow card. Fiji were under pressure for the majority of the game but clawed their way back into it through Nadolo Nasiganiyavi late on.
Scotland 16 – 24 New Zealand: A reinvigorated Scotland nearly stunned the All Blacks at Murrayfield, with the visitors relying on a late score from Jeremy Thrush to seal the game after a fine Victor Vito try had put them in command. A Tommy Seymour intercept gave the Scots hope, but after Greg Laidlaw missed a kick to put the hosts in the lead with 12 minutes to go, the All Blacks closed the game out.
France 29 – 26 Australia: France inflicted the first defeat of Michael Cheika’s coaching tenure by turning over the Wallabies 29 – 26 in an enthralling encounter in Paris. Les Bleus deserved the win – leading 29-19 with 10 minutes to go after tries from Sebastien Tillous-Borde and Teddy Thomas (his fourth in two games) – but the Wallabies fought back twice through Adam Ashley-Cooper and Rob Simmons. The French are showing ominous signs as we approach the World Cup year.
Ireland 49 – 7 Georgia: Tries from Dave Kilcoyne and Richardt Strauss were the only scorers in a frustrating first half against the Georgians, with Giorgi Nemsadze grabbing one from the visitors, but the hosts cut loose in the second half with scores from Simon Zebo, Felix Jones (2) and Stuart Olding.