June 19, 2012
South Africa's Bismarck du Plessis charges towards the try line during his side's victory in Johannesburg © Getty Images
England may not be getting everything right on the pitch but things are clearly in order off it.
They were staring down the barrel at half-time in their latest clash with South Africa but they showed an impressive spirit to battle their way back into the game and but for a couple of moments of madness may have been celebrating levelling the series.
Generating that kind of desire is not easy especially when the coaches and the players are on a steep learning curve. They appear to be growing together and on this evidence may well be the start of something special.
Touring can be difficult even when the results do go your way and as I've mentioned before, it's important to get away from the rugby at times. You will often find yourself sharing with someone from a different club or nation who you don't really know and it's always interesting.
It was nice of David Flatman to describe me as the "best person to tour with, by a country mile", but my favourite tour companion is Simon Shaw. He's not the brightest bloke in the world but is my best mate. If Shawsy and I were sharing a room it would have a combined IQ of 100 and 90 of them would be mine.
I remember going for a meal with him once and the waiter came over with his pizza and asks: "Would you like your pizza cut into four or eight slices?" Shawsy replies: "You better leave it as four as I don't think I can eat eight."
On the 1997 Lions tour I shared with Keith Wood and Paul Wallace but it was my time with Tom Smith that left the biggest impression. He has got to be the worst person I have roomed with and I'll give you one of the printable examples. I got in from training one day and flicked on the TV to relax and rewind. Tom comes in and turns the TV over on his way to the shower. Annoying - and then some.
But it looks like England are having no such problems in South Africa going by the latest example of their unity. Things looked ominous early on as wave after wave of South African attack thundered towards the England line with hooker Bismarck du Plessis simply imperious. The pressure was immense but it took an awful decision from the officials to break England's resolve.
The failure of referee Alain Rolland and his assistant Steve Walsh to spot the feed into the first scrum of the game passed straight through without touching any of the front row forwards was disgusting and not only led to the Boks' first try but heaped further pressure on an already stretched England.
But England didn't help themselves. Hooker Dylan Hartley may have been guilty of not concentrating and relying on his scrum-half Ben Youngs to feed the ball to him to allow him to concentrate on scrummaging. As a result, he's not hooked the ball, it's gone through Dan Cole's feet before it gets to Tom Johnson who having been penalised last weekend for using his hand at a scrum decides not to intervene. A more experienced player may have conceded the penalty but instead England are chasing the game. Hartley must shoulder most of the responsibility but in truth the scrum should have been re-set.
England's Mark Regan and Simon Shaw line up for the anthems ahead of the 2007 Rugby World Cup Final clash with South Africa © PA Photos
The other costly moment for England came late in the game. Jonathan Joseph's decision to kick long will not have been appreciated by his team-mates who had run themselves into the ground and dragged their way back into the contest in the process. Unsurprisingly the kick-chase was simply not good enough and South Africa's JP Pietersen delighted in running the ball back at England in a move that ended with the winger crossing for an all-important try.
England deserve plenty of credit for their second half showing but they need to deliver that kind of performance for 80 minutes. The bench had a significant impact but I don't understand why all the changes were made. Ben Youngs was still bouncing around late in the game but England chose to take their best player off and it stripped them of momentum.
If there is one thing to be taken from this latest defeat it is that England have got to hit the ground running. The best southern hemisphere sides play at a frantic pace from the off and to match that you have got to come out fighting, you can't hold anything back. The first 20 minutes in Johannesburg defined the game.
It was good to see the frustration on the faces of Lancaster and his players at the final whistle. They are right to be disappointed and it is another example of the kind of character and spirit required to be the best in the world. But as Clive Woodward used to tell us, they need 'to look beyond No.1' if they are to progress from a good side to a great one.
If they can summon one more big performance before they hit the beach then they will take another step towards that goal.
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