The Springboks squandered an 18-6 lead to suffer a heartbreaking 23-21 defeat to England at Twickenham on Saturday.
Having dominated the first 45 minutes of the game, the Boks lost momentum when Jean de Villiers was yellow carded for a professional foul at the breakdown. Mark Cueto scored a critical try while the centre was in the sin bin, and with replacement Andy Goode on at flyhalf, the home side fought their way back into the game.
Replacement Phil Vickery capped off the comeback by barging over the tryline with five minutes remaining, after a sustained period of attack.
The Boks weren’t helped when the influential Butch James left the field midway through the second half with a knee injury. Replacement Andre Pretorius had a nightmare spell, making two uncharacteristic errors.
Charlie Hodgson, who was substituted last weekend against Argentina, vowed to raise his game for the Boks. Needless to say, he was just as woeful in general play, and his injury moments before half-time gave his side a fighting chance. England were a far better team with Goode at 10 and Robinson must regret not playing him from the start.
Apart from scrumhalf Peter Richards and fullback Josh Lewsey, the rest of the England backs were as threatening as a right hook from an over-the-hill Mike Tyson. The Boks led 13-6 at half-time, but should have taken a far bigger cushion into the change rooms after failing to round off three clear-cut try scoring opportunities.
As in Dublin last weekend, it was 19-year-old Francois Steyn who stood out for the Boks. The fullback plays without fear and clearly believes in his own ability. Early in the first half he took a quick throw to himself inside his 22, beat two defenders and offloaded to De Villiers who ran up to the halfway mark. Steyn also attempted a drop kick from 55m out that wasn’t far off the mark, before nailing one on the half-hour mark from almost the identical spot.
The Boks got off to a scrappy start when they failed to claim possession from the kick-off, after which Hodgson slotted an early penalty. A swinging-arm late tackle by Martin Corry on James saw the Bok flyhalf level the scores, before Hodgson’s second penalty attempt shaved the left-hand upright.
The Boks should have scored a try when De Villiers intercepted a wayward England pass inside his own half, and made a dart for the right-hand corner. However, a superb cross-cover tackle from Josh Lewsey saw the Bok No 12 tackled into touch just short of the tryline. Questions will be asked as to why De Villiers didn’t pass to Akona Ndungane on his inside, who was in the clear and would have scored under the posts.
Instead of landing a significant blow, the Boks watched Hodgson make it 6-3 through another penalty.
The visitors botched a second try-scoring chance when a backline switch put Ndungane into space. The ball was quickly recycled to Cronje, but an England hand prevented it from getting to Steyn where the try was on out wide. However, a poor touch finder from Lewsey saw Steyn slot a massive drop goal to bring the teams level again.
Steyn was back in the action when he tore through the English defence and tried to weave his way past Lewsey. However, the England fullback stood his ground and Ndungane couldn’t control Steyn’s pass.
It was a shocking kick by Ben Cohen that finally saw the Boks cross the tryline two minutes before the break. De Villiers ran away down the left-hand touchline, took the tackle and offloaded to James who got 10 points for the dive and five for the try. The flyhalf slotted the touchline conversion, but missed another penalty just before half-time after an early tackle by Cohen on Ndungane.
The Boks extended their advantage two minutes after the break, after poaching an England line-out inside their 22. James’s grubber pierced the defence and sat up perfectly for Ndungane who went over in the right-hand corner. The flyhalf missed the difficult conversion but at 18-6 the Boks were seemingly cruising to victory.
Then came the turning point of the match, when De Villiers was sent to the sin bin. Richards broke away from a 5m scrum and was tackled just short of the tryline. The ball found Goode who lost the ball backwards, but Ceuto was on hand to clean up. Goode kicked the touchline conversion to make it a five-point ball game.
It was another line-out steal from the Boks that almost resulted in their third try. Wynand Olivier beat two poor tackles, only for Steyn to be bundled into touch just before the corner flag. However, the referee was playing advantage and James’s penalty made it 21-13. But no sooner had James sent the ball through the posts than he was substituted by Pretorius.
England continued to enjoy the majority of possession, but didn’t seem to know what to do with it. At one stage, they took the ball through a dozen phases, lost 30m of ground and then conceded the penalty when Richards was pinned for excessive rucking.
However, a Goode penalty brought England within striking range before Vickery landed the killer blow.
While the Boks worked their way back into opposition territory, they lacked the composure to reclaim the lead.
Their disappointment at the final whistle said it all.
England – Tries: Mark Cueto, Phil Vickery. Conversions: Andy Goode (2). Penalties: Charlie Hodgson (2), Goode.
South Africa – Tries: Butch James, Akona Ndungane. Conversion: James. Penalties: James (2). Drop goal: Steyn.
By Simon Borchardt, at Twickenham