Battling England earn redemption in face of an onslaught
Redemption day for England, affirmation time for Eddie Jones. Where others doubted, England believed, igniting a bonfire of their critics’ preconceptions to prevail against all odds.
England even survived a final-second TMO decision as a bone-crunching Owen Farrell tackle on Andre Esterhuizen was deemed legitimate. It was a fortunate escape. In the current climate, it might even have been pushing a red card. England had suffered ill fortune through injury. Perhaps their luck is changing. Perhaps the gods are with them again.
A normally contained Jones punched the air, as well he might, at the final whistle. The crowd erupted. It was a famous victory, one that takes all the pressure off Jones and his England team. It was not accomplished, it was against the grain, but the record books do not lie. England have knocked over – just – one of the form sides in world rugby. There were a lot of boots lined up to plant on Jones’s backside. That pantomime sideshow is now over.
There is a lot spoken about performance being paramount. This match knocked such guff into a cocked hat. England needed a victory, for their own self-assurance, for a smidgen of momentum and for the continuing faith of their supporters. Such a win with an under-strength team bodes well for their World Cup hopes. It was ugly of style, but a thing of beauty in outcome. Let no one claim that this makes England world beaters against allcomers, as Clive Woodward’s team were in the run-up to Australia in 2003.
Jones’s team do not have that authority or swagger. But after five defeats in the past six Tests coming into this match, they are back in the ball game. That is all. But for now, that is enough.
There are games when muscle and bone can be trumped by heart and soul. This was one of them. South African might and main had England in all sorts of problems in the first half, yet they endured. They had trust in each other and they had trust in the cause. It was not pretty, it was not a sweeping, fluent England performance, and the All Blacks will not be tossing and turning uneasily in their beds as they contemplate next Saturday’s encounter.
England were poor through the first half, unable to get even as much as a toe into their opponents’ 22. New Zealand would have put them away on such a pitiful English output.
They really ought to have been holed below the plumb line, drowning as a sea of green shirts swept over them. But they held firm. It was a Rorke’s Drift rearguard action, full of character and dogged belief. It was enough to rouse the Twickenham crowd. They deserve their moment of indulgence, for these have been unsettling times. Jones has always insisted there is much work to be done. And he does have half a dozen frontline operators to return.
South Africa will rue their laxity in the first half. They had an overwhelming advantage in territory (78 per cent) and possession (67 per cent), yet they could not make it count. They had two promising positions near England’s line yet twice over-threw.
Yet England were under the pump. England needed to neutralise South Africa’s power game. What they did not need to do in those early stages was to concede penalty after penalty. It was a reflection of the pressure they were under. England had half a dozen penalties against them within the opening quarter, Maro Itoje responsible for three of them, and he was dispatched to the sinbin in the 16th minute. Somehow England clung on, scrabbling and resisting as best they could.
There was a sense of inevitability building through the first half. Damian de Allende was a constant worry for the English defence and it was from one trademark run in the 33rd minute that the Springboks eventually cracked it, moving the ball right from the initial incursion to where wing S’bu Nkosi was able to skip round Jonny May to touch down.
Somehow England managed to hang in there, Farrell’s second penalty of the afternoon enabling them to go into the interval only 8-6 adrift. England had been on their uppers, the opposition 22-metre area no more than a speck on the horizon.
Yet they did not roll out the white flag. There was a blink of disbelief when looking at the scoreboard in the 51st minute as Elliot Daly’s long-range effort edged England in front. Suddenly there was life, suddenly there was hope. England’s attack began to