June 24, 2012
England head coach Stuart Lancaster has reason to smile after a testing tour of South Africa © Getty Images
England's failure to beat South Africa in a Test that they should arguably have won in Port Elizabeth is in danger of over-shadowing what may well come to be viewed as a significant step in their development ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
It is easy to forget that many were predicting a world of pain for Stuart Lancaster's squad on their five-match, three-Test tour where a new-look England that had shown promise in the Six Nations would supposedly be dealt a brutal dose of reality. The best chance of an upset was supposed to be the series opener in Durban and when that chance slipped by you could have been forgiven for thinking it was going to be a case of damage limitation but no. Not for the first time in Lancaster's brief but impressive tenure, England surprised their doubters and rather than reluctantly review a painful tour, they can look back at plenty of positives, and some clear shortcomings, while banking the priceless experience gained during their exposure to an intense period of competition.
England's brave but fruitless attempt to draw first blood in the series at Kings Park offered a reminder of the formidable spirit that Lancaster has forged within the squad just a few short months after it looked bereft of any such quality. No-fear, all-action displays from the likes of flanker Tom Johnson and Joe Marler epitomised the belief within the England ranks that was harnessed admirably by captain Chris Robshaw and together they played on the hosts' insecurity. Ben Foden's late score that came as the result of a final flourish may have not been enough to prevent South Africa taking a deserved victory but hinted that the hosts would not get everything their own way in the coming weeks. It was not a perfect performance fronm England with a lack of a creative spark and a cutting edge causing concern and it was something that would plague their efforts to redress the balance in the later Tests.
The tourists were not short of tries on their next outing in Johannesburg , the trouble is neither were South Africa in a brutally efficient display that ensured they took an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series. As Ireland would also find out to their cost in their third Test against the All Blacks, it remains incredibly difficult for Europe's leading sides to live with the southern hemisphere giants when they are in the mood to play - as the Boks clearly were at Ellis Park.
England were not helped by dubious call, or non-call, from referee Alain Rolland and assistant Steve Walsh, but again the visitors' spirit could not be questioned or broken. With scrum-half Ben Youngs a stand-out performer, they rolled with the punches and re-grouped before winning the second half during which they threatened to turn the game on its head only for the Boks to flex their enviable muscle and keep them at arm's length. The disappointment on the faces of England's players and coaching staff in the wake of that loss told you all you need to know about the standards this side has set itself and the goals they have set their sights on.
The focus then switched to Port Elizabeth where the Boks had won their last 10 games, albeit not all at the Nelson Mandela Stadium, on a run that had accounted for the All Blacks among others. A battered and bruised England, facing the final sizeable hurdle of an epic 11-month season, could perhaps have been forgiven a drop in standards but they refused to become another Eastern Cape casualty.
Inspired by a growing belief, they snapped a nine-Test losing run at the hands of the Boks with a hard-earned draw but they should have been celebrating the first southern hemisphere scalp of the Lancaster era. It helped they had players like scrum-half Danny Care and flanker James Haskell who both had personal points to prove and did so in their return to an England shirt but the biggest factor in this result was a faltering South Africa. They could not reach the heights of their 2nd Test barrage with fly-half Morne Styen suffering a rare off-day with the boot.
Shorn of confidence and an aura of invincibility, the Boks appeared to be there for the taking but England could not deliver the knock-out blow. A woeful drop goal attempt from replacement Owen Farrell after his understandably tired forwards had struggled to make an impression on the home side's defence ensured England would be kissing their sister at the final whistle.
That failure to conjure something special when it is needed most emphasises the void that remains between the sides at the top of the game and in particular illustrates that this England side has some way to go in terms of development. But that is not to say that they continue to move forward on that front.
They may not have progressed as much as they would have hoped to on this trip but crucially they have not regressed on a tour of arguably the most gruelling of rugby landscapes when it was almost expected that they would be found out in one form or another. The Rugby Football Union have expressed a fanciful desire to 'win every game' but are not wrong to set the bar so high with the riches at its disposal both on and off the field and with the world coming to play in a little over three years time.
It is a vision shared by Lancaster and one that his players have bought into. England may have haemorrhaged experience since the World Cup but a fresh wave of talent has emerged ready and able. At one point a 10-12-13 combination featuring three players 21 or under were in the heat of battle at the Nelson Mandela Stadium and not one looked out of place. The experience will serve them and the rest of the squad well and that will no doubt please Lancaster as will the imminent return of the likes of Courtney Lawes and Tom Croft who will bring more competition ahead of the November internationals.
The scheduled clashes with Australia, South Africa and New Zealand represent the latest stage in the road to RWC'15 and having seemingly climbed into the all-important top four of the IRB rankings with Saturday's result, the pressure will be on to cement that spot and with it avoid the same opposition in December's pool draw for the next global showpiece. But this England side are not ones for standing still and will no doubt be targeting further improvement.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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