England weather the storm to kick off Autumn with a win
THERE are home-town decisions, and then there are those that come from the sofa in your own front room.
And Owen Farrell will be hugely relieved that he got one of the latter from Aussie referee Angus Gardner in the very last act of this Autumn series opener.
If the venue had been Cape Town rather than Twickenham you can bet your bottom dollar that the penalty following Farrell’s no arms high-shot on Springbok replacement Andre Esterhuizen would have been awarded. You can also rest assured that it would been a certain yellow card, and probably a red.
Had the penalty been given, the chances of Handre Pollard kicking it were good, but after the referee had watched the big screen he ruled that the footage exonerated the England fly half and co-captain, and blew for full-time. It meant that rather than winning the game by a point, the home side might have lost it by two.
Gardner said: “It’s not a clear shoulder to me – and there’s enough of a wrap on the far side to be a fair tackle.”
Others, and not just South Africans, would have argued otherwise – including the referees in the English Premiership and European Cup who have adhered this season to a zero tolerance policy for any contact above the chest which rises towards the face.
Farrell’s relief will have been shared by Eddie Jones, because before a spirited second-half revival he and a near full house at Twickenham had endured a dismal opening 40 minutes from the men in white.
Afterwards Jones stressed how pleased he was with England’s performance given that they had only had three full training sessions before facing a South African side which had been together for three months.
The flip side of that coin is that the head coach has had three years in which to get his ducks in a row in terms of selection, and how he wants to prepare, and in the first half his side looked painfully deficient in both respects.
It was to England’s credit that they rode out the South African storm and came back with some gale force stuff of their own in the second half. However, if the finishing from the Springboks had not been so profligate in the first-half then it is unlikely they would have been close to making up the deficit, let alone winning the game.
Instead, they turned around trailing only 8-6, and made almost instant gains when Jones reshuffled his front row by bringing Ben Moon on at loose-head for his clubmate at Exeter, Alec Hepburn.
The England scrum had been in disarray before the break and the arrival of Moon brought much-needed solidity, which was cemented when the coach eventually introduced Jamie George for Hartley and Harry Williams for Kyle Sinckler, who struggled to hold Steven Kitshoff.
Having barely mounted an attack in the first-half England suddenly grew in conviction, and rather than chasing the game started making the Springboks chase them. An Elliot Daly penalty from just inside the South African half gave England the lead for the first time at 9-8 with 50 minutes played.
It gave England the confidence boost they desperately needed, and when a strong carry by Maro Itoje was followed by a Farrell half break which was taken on by Henry Slade and Daly, the home side were finally up and running.
They had a chance to extend their lead on the hour when Warren Whiteley was on the receiving end of a harsh line-out interference call, but Farrell’s kick fell just short. When Pollard was given a similar chance a few minutes later after George Kruis failed to release he hit the target to give South Africa an 11-9 advantage.
England responded with the urgency which had eluded them for much of the encounter and forays from Ben Te’o and Daly kept the pressure on long enough for Teo’s looping pass to find Jonny May with ten minutes remaining.
Although May’s pass to Brad Shields was at least a metre forward, it went undetected, and the blindside battered towards the line before spoiling it by throwing a Hail Mary pass towards the Springbok end rather than setting it up in the corner.
It was England’s only genuine try-scoring chance of the game, but with eight minutes left Moon got the angle on Wilco Louw at a scrum on the edge of the Bok 22, and as England trundled forward on a diagonal Thomas du Toit was penalised for collapsing.
Farrell showed he has icewater in his veins as he kicked from the touchline to give England their eventual winning margin.
South Africa refused to accept they were done, and came storming back. In a frenzied climax to the match a long range Pollard penalty shaved the upright, and then Damian de Allende cut clean through only to be felled by a superb Danny Care chase and tackle.
If anyone deserved to be on the winning side it was De Allende because the big centre caused England endless grief, using incredibly nimble footwork along with his power to consistently spear over the gain-line.
However, despite the visitors monopolising possession as the clock ticked down there was no way back .... and then came Farrell’s ‘collision’ with Esterhuizen.
That England were only two points adrift at the interval was a travesty in terms of the run of play, with South Africa superior in every department other than the composure finish off their chances.
The signs that England were in for a taxing afternoon were writ large early on. Not only did Daly betray signs of his inexperience at full-back by allowing his novice South African opposite number Damian Willemse to climb above him twice in the early stages, but the visiting pack posted notice of their power with a steaming line-out drive.
When England also started to leak penalties due to indiscipline, and a Pollard strike from 40 metres put the Springboks 3-0 up, the fears that this experimental side did not have the physi-
Surge: Brad Shields charges for the corner
In vain: Ben Te’o attempts to block Sibusiso Nkosi but he goes on to score