Power-packed Boks deliver reality check
November 27, 2010
South Africa's Pierre Spies hands off England's Ben Foden © Getty Images
South Africa brought England crashing back down to earth in brutal fashion at Twickenham with a power-packed and intelligent display that suggests there is still plenty of life in a side that many have been happy to write off.
Reeling from their shock reverse at the hands of the Scots last weekend the Springboks reverted to type with a commanding victory built on bone-crunching physicality, one that is set to grant under-fire coach Peter de Villiers a reprieve and the chance to steer the team into next year's Rugby World Cup.
The tourists may have lacked the cutting edge of their southern hemisphere rivals New Zealand and Australia but what they lack in guile they certainly make up for in grit. An awesome defensive display shackled England and denied them time and space but their imperious lineout was equally impressive. Captain Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha have long been regarded as the best lineout partnership in the game and despite their increasing years they show no signs of letting that crown slip.
And while England's indiscipline contributed to their downfall, the Springboks' composure ensured they only conceded four penalties during the whole game - an amazing stat considering the intensity of the contest.
Hooker Bismarck du Plessis was rewarded for a stand out performance with the Man of the Match display but he had several willing co-horts with captain Matfield, scrum-half Ruan Pienaar and No.8 Pierre Spies stepping up when their side needed it most. Together they bullied an England side riding high on belief and quite literally knocked the stuffing out of them - not in the lawless way they did in 2002 but in a controlled and devastating manner.
As a result a tour that many were dreading in the wake of a dire Tri-Nations and a raft of injuries delivered three victories and that renewed confidence may well propel them onto greater success next year just as the 2006 Springboks weathered a forgettable year before going on to claim the sport's biggest prize.
England manager Martin Johnson has been keen to stress in recent weeks that his side are far from the finished article and it would appear so. This result is unlikely to derail this side's undoubted progress and even in defeat there were positives. Forced to play without the ball and on the back foot for long periods they displayed impressive backbone with lock Courtney Lawes the star performer.
The Saints second row continues to develop into a world-class player and his work rate and tackle count were exemplary while his first meeting with the Springboks is sure to benefit his Test match education as a whole - let us not forget he is only 21-years-old. He knows no fear and does not care how big your reputation is - he will take you on or down as his try-saving tackle on Matfield proved.
England were dragged into an arm wrestle by the visitors all too easily when they should have dicatated terms of the clash on their own patch. They had little answer to the constant pressure exerted by the Boks and their frustration led to errors, turnover and in turn penalties. Johnson spoke earlier this week about how he would have love to be playing still and how they needed him to shore up their challenge. England's younger players will no doubt benefit from this encounter and hopefully emerge a little more street wise having licked their wounds. Running rugby is all very pretty but you are hard pressed to cut your opponent open if you don't have the ball.
Johnson's side must now add an increased physical element to their game to compliment the creative flair that they have already shown this autumn. England had come through a testing campaign relatively unscathed until today with influential performers such as winger Chris Ashton, flanker Tom Croft and fly-half Toby Flood forced out of the contest - battered and bruised. Without this trio England looked a little vulnerable which underlines their importance to Johnson and his plans for the World Cup.
As a result of this defeat, England must make do with the two victories that they targeted at the start of the autumn and it was perhaps all they deserved. On the evidence of this display they may not be going forward at the rate they were against the Wallabies but at the same time they are not going backwards - that will only be the case if they fail to learn from this game.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.