Eng­land refuse to buckle on way to great es­cape and earn con­fi­dence boost

Spring­boks lit­er­ally throw away a game they should have won

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Rugby - ROBERT KITSON at Twick­en­ham

This time next year the Rugby World Cup will have just fin­ished, and Satur­day’s open­ing match of the au­tumn se­ries will mostly be for­got­ten. The ma­jor­ity will only re­call South Africa lit­er­ally throw­ing away a game they should have won, and the du­bi­ous late de­ci­sion not to pe­nalise Owen Far­rell for ex­actly the type of hit World Rugby wants to out­law.

Within the Eng­land camp, nev­er­the­less, this may yet prove a small but piv­otal break­through in terms of their 2019 prospects. Its value lay not in the qual­ity of the rugby – nei­ther side were any­where close to out­stand­ing – but in the red rose char­ac­ter it re­vealed. Some­times it is slightly for­tu­nate, against-the-grain suc­cess that gives teams more in­ner be­lief than days when vic­tory is squeezed more smoothly from the tube.

Of course, ev­ery­thing is rel­a­tive: if New Zealand are al­lowed the same first-half ball and ter­ri­tory this Satur­day they will win by 25 points. Yet when they an­a­lyse the match tape the All Blacks will also note Eng­land’s re­fusal to buckle and their dogged­ness in ad­ver­sity. Given how many in­flu­en­tial bod­ies are un­avail­able to Ed­die Jones, the con­fi­dence gen­er­ated by their sec­ond-half re­vival will be sub­stan­tial.

Even Harry Hou­dini would not have rel­ished the pad­locked strait­jacket in which the Spring­boks had their op­po­nents im­pris­oned. If their great es­cape, se­cured by a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally nerve­less Far­rell penalty with seven min­utes left, owed much to Spring­bok profli­gacy and the er­ratic li­ne­out throw­ing of Mal­colm Marx, it was also no­table for Eng­land’s re­fusal to bow to the seem­ingly in­evitable.

Worst trait

With just about ev­ery­one ex­pect­ing a New Zealand vic­tory against Eng­land that is not the worst trait for Jones’s squad to be de­vel­op­ing. Mark Wil­son, Ge­orge Kruis, Ben Moon and Harry Wil­liams may not be starry names but the grit and char­ac­ter that con­founded South Africa are the qual­i­ties upon which con­sis­tent Test packs are built. With Court­ney Lawes and Manu Tuilagi hop­ing to be fit to face the All Blacks, Jones’s post-match tone sug­gested the world’s best team can be made to stop and think.

“I said to the boys af­ter the game that I can’t wait. They are the bench­mark for world rugby; the team you want to play against. You only know where you are in the world when you play against the All Blacks.”

New Zealand will be smarter and more clin­i­cal than South Africa un­less Eng­land cut them off at source. With a cou­ple of tweaks – per­haps Sam Un­der­hill for the in­jured Tom Curry on the open­side flank and a front-row reshuf­fle – it is not a game Jones sees as un­winnable. “You’ve got to be­lieve you can beat them. You’ve got to un­der­stand where they’re weak and strong, and be dis­ci­plined in your game­plan.”

Given South Africa beat the All Blacks in Wellington and should also have top­pled them in Pre­to­ria, the long-awaited re­turn of the sil­ver fern to south­west Lon­don will cer­tainly not lack for pre-match con­jec­ture.

Take your pick from Eng­land’s new de­fence coach, John Mitchell, up against his com­pa­tri­ots, Will Car­ling back in the Eng­land fold as a lead­er­ship ad­viser, and Far­rell look­ing to repli­cate last year’s Lions’ sec­ond Test suc­cess in Wellington. Un­der­pin­ning it will be Eng­land’s ris­ing sense they are not that far away from tak­ing a gi­ant leap. “The be­lief you get from win­ning those tight games is enor­mous,” said Jones. “It just makes ev­ery­one feel bet­ter, and means we won’t have to pick them up this week.”

Jones also in­sists he still felt con­fi­dent at half-time de­spite South Africa hav­ing en­joyed 78 per cent ter­ri­tory and al­most as much pos­ses­sion in the first 40 min­utes. His ra­tio­nale was that, psy­cho­log­i­cally, South Africa were un­der more pres­sure hav­ing not nailed their nu­mer­ous chances. The most glar­ing came when Eng­land were down to 14 men, with Maro Itoje in the sin bin, and de­fend­ing a South Africa li­ne­out five me­tres out which Marx pro­ceeded to over­throw. “What I was really pleased about was that 10 min­utes when Maro went to the bin,” said Jones. “I think we won it 3-0.”

‘Good solid tackle’

With a few play­ful jabs at the me­dia thrown in – “you guys love sack­ing coaches, that’s what you live for” – Jones has rarely ap­peared more up­beat af­ter any fix­ture since he took the Eng­land job. As far as he was con­cerned the Far­rell hit was just “a good solid tackle”, and an­other ap­par­ent high chal­lenge from Jonny May in the hec­tic clos­ing mo­ments was sim­i­larly glossed over.

It was left to for­mer French na­tional coach Philippe Saint-An­dré to spec­u­late on the re­ac­tion had Far­rell’s hit been made by a French­man, a Fi­jian or a Samoan. If the game is se­ri­ous about re­duc­ing tackle height a penalty should have been awarded.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: ADAM DAVY/PA

Eng­land’s Owen Far­rell tack­les South Africa’s An­dre Ester­huizen dur­ing the in­ter­na­tional Test at Twick­en­ham on Satur­day.

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