English decision making found wanting
Tom Hamilton at Twickenham
November 24, 2012
Chris Robshaw tries to break through the resolute and hugely impressive Springboks defence © Getty Images
It ended up being another England defeat and another post-mortem which resolved around decision making at key moments. Test match rugby is decided by fine margins and England will look back on this game as another one that got away - it's becoming an albatross on their backs. England boss Stuart Lancaster refused to be drawn on individual decisions post-match but a large part of the reflections on this Test will resound around one moment with few minutes left on the clock.
After persistently hammering away at the Boks defence and, one would expect tiring them in the process, England were handed a penalty 25 metres out with three minutes left on the clock and a four-point deficit to make up. Last week skipper Chris Robshaw was criticised for his choice to gamble and go for the seven-pointer rather than taking the easy three points and today he appeared indecisive when this penalty was offered. After much discussion between him and Owen Farrell with the latter seemingly favouring the option of gambling and kicking to touch and the clock simultaneously ticking down, Farrell knocked over the easy kick from the tee and England had another point to make up with just a minute left on the clock. Securing re-start ball has not been one of their strengths and lo and behold, the ball fell into touch off an England hand and the Boks forwards kept hold of the ball securing the victory.
The conditions were terrible with constant rain and a cruel breeze putting paid to any chance of free-flowing attacking rugby, but the Twickenham crowd was still boisterous throughout. And on the field, there were some positives from this performance away from the shambles at the end.
Although some question his ability to scythe through the opposition, Brad Barritt was superb in defence and Joe Launchbury put in an assured performance on his first Test start and even unleashed the dying breed of the offload - a sleight of hand that put Alex Goode away and England made 25 metres. Post-match Andy Farrell also singled out Geoff Parling and Ben Morgan and it is credit to England that they were not bullied by this South Africa side in the same manner they were in the second Test over the summer.
But in the preview for this match, we said that England needed that bit of magic to defeat the Boks and as it transpired, that was what proved to be the difference between their loss and what could have been a key victory. They had enormous amounts of attacking possession but only dipped their toe in the Boks' 22 on a couple of occasions - at one stage of the game hooker Tom Youngs was their most dangerous attacker. Passes went to ground in the red zone, but in the middle two quarters of the field, their handling was exemplary. However, when it comes to playing the set moves and building territory, this England team shows promise but when it comes to cutting edge and working those final stages en route to a try, for the second week running, they have been found wanting.
It comes back to that matter of making decisions. Toby Flood struggled at half-back both from the tee and also with ball in hand. And England's method of using one-up in attack, without support runners is not making the required inroads. There were some promising darts and line breaks but when these unpredictable and potentially match-defining moments are offered, England seem surprised rather than accepting it as part of the game and seven-point opportunities are not grasped.
Joe Launchbury's performance was one of England's shining lights © PA Photos
But despite questionable decisions and an England team still seemingly in its infancy, this should not detract from the Boks' performance. In a carbon-copy performance from their win over Ireland, South Africa soaked up the pressure with ease and then struck early in the second-half. You will struggle to see a more bizarre and opportunistic score than Willem Alberts' effort, but they all count. And with Patrick Lambie pulling the strings majestically at fly-half, alongside their influential back-row, they very rarely seemed troubled - they soaked up the attacking pressure and waited for England to knock on or hand the ball back.
The only moment they seem rattled was when Manu Tuilagi broke away in the 65th minute after snuffling up an intercept pass. He darted into a surprised Boks defence and had Chris Ashton on his shoulder. But this is not the same Ashton who was running in tries for fun in 2010. He seems to be lacking confidence and while his basic wing instinct is there, he did not back himself and flung a poor pass to Mike Brown which went to ground. It was England's main chance to cross the try line but they failed to get into the Boks' 22.
While South Africa are the second-best side in the world according to the IRB rankings and seem to be secure in the top group of seeds ahead of the 2015 World Cup draw, England are now very unlikely to break into that elite group and that looks a fair reflection of where they are at the moment.
England's off-field and PR profile appears to be sorted - the decision to have mascots from the players' first clubs was inspired and the anthem singer actually hit the right notes unlike last week. But the England team did not. The brutal facts are there in black and white -Lancaster's side have lost their last two Tests in a campaign that promised much.
Now come the All Blacks and they will not be in the slightest bit worried by this England side. Lancaster has called on his team to "bottle the frustration and take it out on the All Blacks" but they will need more than just passion if they are to down the best side in the world next week.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.