By Jeremy Guscott
ENGLAND were immaculate in the first 20 minutes and when George Ford and Owen Farrell combine like that in attack, there aren’t many better 10-12 partnerships in world rugby – only the Australian duo of Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale come close.
However, in defence, there are still glaring problems and the South Africans exploited that ruthlessly for the next half an hour.
It was a compelling game from start to finish and inspirational in lots of ways. To see Siya Kolisi become the first black Springbok captain – and running out at the spiritual home of South African rugby at Ellis Park was great to witness.
And the Boks fightback from 20-3 down after 17 minutes was quite astonishing. When the third England try went in it seemed the ground was opening up and sucking the new Springboks in and you feared it could be very one-sided. England looked a different side to the one in the Six Nations and seemed odds on to run away with it. They were playing heads up rugby and the new attack coach Scott Wisemantel looked to have done his homework with those three stunning early tries.
I thought England would use the crossfield kick to put pressure on the new Bok wings but instead they put width on the ball and played what was in front of them. Some might point to South African defensive lapses, but England read them like a book and their early play thoroughly deserved its rewards.
Ford enjoyed one of his better spells for a while in an England shirt and showed the full range of his passing to unlock the Bok defence. He was the catalyst for Farrell’s try with a long pass to Slade and also sent Jonny May clear with a little pop pass which eventually led to the Daly try.
Together with Farrell, they controlled the tempo in the first 20 but the spirit in this South African side is clear to see and Kolisi put in a true captain’s performance leading them back from the brink in a remarkable comeback. But you really are left asking how did England contrive to throw this one away?
It all seemed to snowball from the simple Elliot Daly error in goal that allowed S’busiso Nkosi to score. From there the Boks heaped wave after wave of pressure and highlighted one of England’s continuing flaws – their inability to exit their own half efficiently.
Once again this England side seemed unable to change the tide. When the crowd started becoming noiser England had to play smart rugby and use their undoubted kicking advantage to exit their half and relieve the stress. With Ford, Farrell, Henry Slade, Daly and Mike Brown in the backline, it was a huge area to expoit.
Not only would it have kept the crowd quiet, it would have frustrated the Bok players which in turn would have presented attacking opportunities.
The breakdown was the issue in the Six Nations and while Tom Curry got stuck in, he needs support and obviously Eddie Jones was not happy with how his back five forwards were competing on the gain line so brought on Brad Shields early. But it didn’t stem the tide.
Joe Launcbury’s grunt and power was a big miss in the second row, and the marauding RG Snyman enjoyed a debut to remember in the Bok boiler room. The intensity is different at Test level but he took to it like a natural.
Billy Vunipola did OK but he’s not at his fearsome best and without continual go-forward England struggle. Duane Vermeulen made more impact at the back of the South African pack. Along with his back row buddies Kolisi and Jean Luc du Preez, the Boks dictated the pace.
England looked stressed whenever the Boks won quick ball and went wide, with Willie le Roux the main threat as he took the ball at such pace and had the vision and skill to unleash his fliers.
Le Roux had the most try-assists in the Premiership last season and his return is a big boost to the Boks. He was in imperious form and his pace and vision cut England apart. As did Sale scrum-half Faf de Klerk. But I don’t understand why Maro Itoje was seemingly man marking the No.9.
Itoje is still not playing for England like he does for Saracens and all I can guess is that he’s being given different orders by the national coaches.
Instead of looking to smash the tiny scrum-half, Itoje should be looking to carry more and steamroller the opposition, expecially the likes of De Klerk. Too much attention on one player is brainless.
Individual errors aside, England’s issues still stem from the breakdown. Ill-discipline and a few poor decisions didn’t help, and too often, as with the final lineout, poor execution let them down. They finished strong but the middle 40 was world’s apart from the opening 20 and England have work to do ahead of next week.
One crucial thing is their ability to play at different tempos. England tried too often to play at their own pace rather than embrace the frenetic nature of the game while keeping clear heads under pressure.
Expect another compelling nail-biter next week and although it will be colder in Bloemfontein, it will be another fast-paced thriller.
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