But they could have had several other players in their sights. This was a Bok
team that never got out of first gear, a Bok team which appeared to believe
a victory was their divine right, a Bok team who need to regroup and rethink
if they are going to trouble the All Blacks this summer.
Unbelievably, at the end of a tumultuous and error-ridden encounter, it was
England who had the chance to snatch a famous victory as they tried to work
Owen Farrell into a position to land a match-winning drop kick.
The kick never got close as Farrell pulled it horribly left, but in a sense it
was a miracle that England were anywhere near a victory because of the
disruption they suffered.
Flood, Farrell and Alex Goode all had spells at outside half in this game,
Manu Tuilagi had a stint at flanker and Joe Marler threw into the lineout as
injuries and yellow cards forced England into reshuffle after reshuffle. To
maintain their organisation and sense of purpose in the midst of such mayhem
If there was a festival air at the start of this game, laced with expectation
of a big Bok win, it lasted all of a minute. That was the time it took for
Toby Flood to bang over England’s first penalty.
But as welcome as the early points was the certainty that England had shape,
aggression, field position and composure. Two of those aspects would have
been a considerable step up from the debacle that was the first quarter in
Ellis Park. To have all four was more than most England supporters had a
right to expect.
Tom Palmer and Tom Johnson began well, big on the carry and on the defensive
turnovers, but it was England’s all-round physicality which impressed.
Instead of the big Bok forwards driving three, four, five metres, dragging
defenders with them, they were hit on the advantage line and stayed hit.
England were also a handful themselves. Manu Tuilagi was at his direct best
and the full-on onslaught was rewarded when the quicksilver Danny Care took
a quick free kick and ran through three Bok defenders to score.
South Africa appeared shell-shocked early on. Bismarck du Plessis made a
stupid mistake getting offside and the Bok discipline generally was poor.
But slowly they dragged themselves back into the game.
They worked out how to cope with England’s driving maul and they used Bryan
Habana’s speed on the kick-chase to get in behind England. Gradually, too,
the Bok runners began to discover a rhythm.
Marcell Coetzee, who has had a wonderful start to his Test career, found some
room and their jumpers started to put pressure on England’s lineout.
Yet, to England’s great credit, their defensive line held firm and the Boks
ended the half having only three Morne Steyn penalties to show for their
second quarter effort when they appeared to begin to get England’s measure.
In the lead 9-8 at half time, there seemed every chance that the Boks would
blast England out of the road as they had in the third quarter in Durban.
England held firm and a Farrell penalty gave them a slight advantage early in
the half. It was at this point that the match moved into a series of charges
and counter charges.
Neither side were able to exert sustained pressure. Instead we had a
succession of cameos which threatened to change the course of the match.
Chris Ashton, enjoying his best game for months, clattered into Gio Aplon to
set up a decent attacking position.
Then minutes later Ryan Kankowski, a Bok replacement, set off on a thunderous
charge only to be smashed back by the double tackle of Joe Marler and Dan
JP Pietersen did force his way over for a Bok try when an England defender
jumped out of the line to return the lead to the Boks at 14-11 but a Farrell
penalty just under 10 minutes from the end levelled the scores at 14-14. And
that was how the match and England’s season ended.
One memory from this tour. It is sometimes easy to forget just how massive
international rugby matches are in this country. Going into Ellis Park for
the second Test, I met up with the England bus.
As the players disembarked, the inexperience of men like Jonathan Joseph,
Marler and Tom Johnson, all in the early steps of their Test careers, was
clear. Their faces were white and tight as they swept into the changing
On Saturday it was very much the same at a stadium the Boks themselves rate as
one of the most emotional and inspirational venues. This time it was Thomas
Waldrom and Alex Goode stepping into the firing line.
At a very basic level international sport tests a man’s character. England may
have plenty to work on come the autumn, but one things is certain. They will
not be short of courage.