Rugby union: England 0-36 South Africa

England 0-36 South Africa

England have endured some grim nights since lifting the World Cup four years ago but nothing on this scale. Not only did they never remotely look like beating South Africa, they barely looked like scoring a point. This was a record margin of defeat on the global stage and, at this rate, the erstwhile world champions can expect to be out of the tournament by next Saturday.

Root-canal surgery without the anaesthetic would have been marginally less painful for England's supporters and next week's encounter with Samoa may well deepen their sense of depression. There is only one side looking forward to that game in Nantes and they are not the men in white. To deepen the gloom, there was the sombre sight of Jason Robinson being helped off the field after apparently tearing his left hamstring during one of his side's rare attacks. Unless England's fortunes can be transformed, it seems that one of the finest players to grace either code of rugby has played his final game.

Even in Brian Ashton's worst nightmares he never envisaged a scenario in which it mattered not that his two best goalkickers were unavailable. After all the conjecture about Andy Farrell's abilities as a marksman in union, the former Man of Steel did not take aim at any point. Back in 1999, at this same venue, it was the remorseless boot of Jannie de Beer which did for England. There was an equally frustrating sense of impotency this time.

No wonder Martin Corry said he and his men were "shellshocked". The odds had been against England from the start but the Springboks, even without the suspended Schalk Burger, had taken a vice-like grip by half-time, leaving Ashton's reshuffled side to feed off scraps. There was no disputing their resilience under pressure in the second half but, equally, their lack of penetration and dynamism at the breakdown grows ever more alarming. Not for 20 years have an English team at a World Cup looked so short of innovation or guile. Had Bryan Habana, with 26 tries in 29 Test coming into this game, not been strangely ignored out on the left wing the damage would have been worse still.

Instead it is South Africa who can take the high road into the latter rounds without having to worry about facing New Zealand until the final. They scored three tries, two of them from their young wing JP Pietersen, and the performances of the 20-year-old Frans Steyn at inside-centre and the quick-thinking scrum-half Fourie du Preez encapsulated the gulf between the teams.

The sight of Steyn practising 50-metre drop-goals before kick-off was cause for trepidation but this Springbok team are far from one-dimensional and can strike from anywhere. They proved just that within six minutes when, after a regulation lineout take from Bakkies Botha in his own half, Pietersen sneaked up the blindside wing and Du Preez, despite a last-ditch tap-tackle by Robinson, was able to feed a scoring pass to the galloping Juan Smith.

A Percy Montgomery conversion and a Steyn penalty extended the lead to 10-0 with barely 11 minutes gone. Already England were dealing in scraps and struggling at the breakdown. Only at the set pieces did South Africa, unusually, look slightly out of sorts. Even so, it took a fine cover tackle from Josh Lewsey to prevent Jaque Fourie adding to the Springboks' try tally, the centre spilling the ball as he reached out for the line. A Steyn drop-goal also grazed the upright.

England's kicking game was not precise enough to give them some territorial respite. Had they escaped their own half they might have profited from John Smit's suspect lineout throwing. Instead the noose around their necks tightened inexorably.

First Montgomery nailed a second penalty and then, from yet another turnover, South Africa scored the try that effectively secured the contest. There seemed little danger as the veteran prop Os du Randt threw out a loose pass in the general direction of his backs but Du Preez cleverly swivelled away from an overcommitted Farrell and found acres of space ahead of him. The scrum-half is rated the best in the world by many and he did not disappoint his admirers, showing genuine pace and executing his scoring pass to Pietersen with the sure timing of a born matador.

England had little choice but to attempt a change of tack and the below-par Shaun Perry made way for Andy Gomarsall in an effort to improve the supply lines between forwards and backs. It was already too late.

Slowly, the pre-match atmosphere ebbed away and after two more penalties from Montgomery extended the margin further and Jamie Noon was stretchered off with a knee injury, the loudest sound in the stadium seemed to be a rustling in the press box to discover how long it had been since England last scored nil points. It was 1998 when they lost 18-0 to South Africa in Cape Town, but this result was infinitely more disheartening. Back in Kimberley, they are proud of their Big Hole. Here, England were buried so comprehensively you could barely hear the screams.

England Robinson (Tait, 58); Lewsey, Noon (Richards, 79), Farrell, Sackey; Catt, Perry (Gomarsall, h-t); Sheridan (Freshwater, 78), Regan (Chuter, 56), Stevens, Shaw (Borthwick 78), Kay, Corry (capt), Rees (Moody, 53), Easter. ,

South Africa Montgomery; Pietersen, Fourie, Steyn (Olivier. 76), Habana; James (Pretorius, 71), Du Preez (Pienaar, 67); Du Randt (Van der Linde, 61), Smit (capt) (Du Plessis, 71), BJ Botha, B Botha (Muller, 53), Matfield, Van Heerden, Smith (Skinstad, 71), Rossouw.

Referee J Jutge (France). Attendance 80,000.


Robert Kitson at Stade de France

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