No great escape this time, just cold hard reality. England have no divine right to beat the world champions every time they face them in London but as this contest drifted to its inevitable conclusion there were distinct echoes of the 2019 Rugby World Cup final in Yokohama. England were not good enough then and they were similarly outplayed here.
South Africa, at the end of a tough old year, fully deserved their first victory over England on this ground since 2014. Their forwards were as flinty as ever but their game-splitting try was a beauty, starting life in the visitors’ own 22 and ending with wing Kurt-Lee Arendse diving into the right corner some 80 metres away. The Springboks have been looking to expand their horizons slightly and here was further proof they have the players to do so.
But whither England? Their autumn has been a curious mix of elation and exasperation but it has concluded with boos from the stands and many of the same old questions unanswered. Their calendar year return for 2022 also now makes for pretty uncomfortable reading. P12 W5 D1 L6 is statistically their worst return since 2008.
The theory is that England should be judged purely on the World Cup and everything else is mere froth on the pricy Twickenham cappuccino. Which is fine if they go on and lift the Webb Ellis Cup next year. But, for whatever reason, this is a team that only seems to start playing when it has absolutely nothing to lose. Without the 60th-minute red card shown to South Africa’s Thomas du Toit, the final scoreline might have been even more lop-sided.
Considering South Africa have also been beaten by both Ireland and France in recent weeks, it leaves Eddie Jones with much to ponder. If the idea is to blast past South Africa’s ‘Bomb Squad’ in the second half, the starters need to give them some kind of platform. A penny, too, for the thoughts of Rassie Erasmus, banned from matchday duties for his social media posts about referees. How he would have loved to have been on the field at the end, lapping up a result that will sooth a lot of green and gold angst.
In terms of power and dynamism England’s pack finished a distant second even after Du Toit’s departure and, as a direct result, there was little cohesion behind the scrum either. From the moment Freddie Steward dropped a routine early high ball and his captain Owen Farrell tugged two of his first three penalties wide it felt like a hard day’s night from a home perspective.
The Springboks were significantly more alert from early on. A smart variation to the front of the lineout almost yielded a try for Siya Kolisi only for the visiting skipper to be held up over the line, and England were soon spending an ominous amount of time in their own half. Manu Tuilagi, on his 50th England appearance, had a couple of early rumbles but was otherwise mostly a spectator.
Tactically the Boks were also spot on. Midfield space was so scarce initially that it made complete sense for the quietly impressive Damian Willemse to slip back into the pocket and drop a goal to make it 6-3. England, by contrast, stuck to a playbook that was bearing little fruit. Marcus Smith kept launching predictable high balls and, with just over half an hour gone, the Springboks burst into counterattacking life. Willemse nipped away from Steward, linked nicely with Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux and the nippy Arendse scooted away for his seventh try in as many Tests.
Twickenham, the only disco in the world where drum and bass interchanges with Jerusalem, fell quiet. When De Klerk chipped over another penalty to make it 14-3 just before the interval it also left England with another second half mountain to climb. To be well behind at half-time to strong southern hemisphere opposition is unfortunate. To do so twice in eight days, as Oscar Wilde might have concluded, felt like carelessness.
Inside two minutes of the restart England’s task became even harder courtesy of Willemse’s second drop goal, this time from 40 metres. It revived memories of Jannie de Beer’s fusillade of drop goals in the quarter-finals of the 1999 World Cup and prompted a midfield dust up between the increasingly upbeat South African forwards and their frustrated opposite numbers.
By now things were threatening to unravel completely for the reshuffled hosts. With Tom Curry in the sin bin, the giant Eben Etzebeth crashed over for his side’s second try and De Klerk’s conversion and subsequent penalty made it 27-6. Despite Henry Slade’s 72nd minute consolation score there was to be no All Black-style resurrection.
So add up England’s November efforts and what do you have? The angst against Argentina, the jaunt against Japan, the near miss against New Zealand and now this blitz to the Boks. Nine months remain until next year’s World Cup but the English public are not currently expecting much. Jones has rotated his starting XV to little obvious effect and other nations have England’s number. For a team with lofty ambitions in 2023, a solitary win over a below-par Japan from four autumn Tests is simply not good enough.