RYAN VREDE watched the Springboks hold on for a 16-15 victory over England at Twickenham that secured an unbeaten tour.
The tour is over and the examination is passed. It was hardly a convincing pass. Certainly there are areas of their Test syllabus in which these Springboks and their coaches are desperately lacking. But they’ve gone unbeaten in Europe and achieved this with the least experienced side they’ve ever fielded and men ravaged by the excesses of the longest season in their careers.
They had no right to have the work-rate they did, the physicality they displayed, the sharpness of mind that marked their play at critical junctures. They refused to lose, and England, the better side for large periods, simply could not overcome that wall of will.
The value of this tour and the victories that accompanied it is immeasurable. Pat Lambie grew in confidence with every game, tonight looking a Test flyhalf of considerable promise. In Francois Louw, Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen they have a back row of brilliant balance. In Eben Etzebeth, the next step in second row evolution.
Then there’s that defence, the cornerstone of their success in the last three weeks. England at times looked like they were attacking on a tennis court, so condensed was their space and so limited their options. That England opted to go for a penalty with two minutes to play will be perceived by some as a act of immense belief and by others one of breathtaking cowardice. Wherever you stand, save a little praise for the impact of the fearsome Springboks defence on the England psyche.
There was something special, something desperate, something determined about this rendition of the England national anthem pre-match. It was as much a declaration of war as it was an ode to their beloved Queen. And England were fittingly belligerent throughout – bullish in contact on attack and defence and absolutely rampant at scrum time.
With torrential rain belting this famous ground and a breeze that sent the temperature plummeting to the low single figures, this inexperienced Springbok side were always going to have to win a battle of attrition and a tussle for territory. They mastered neither.
Furthermore the attack once again lacked imagination, precision and tactical intelligence. In a season where they were battered for their pragmatic play, it was ironic that in conditions and against a folding defensive line (pushing in hard from the outside), that they would look to ‘play’ more than they have at any stage on tour. England’s defensive pattern screamed for the Springboks’ primary kickers to look for the space that was left vacant behind the hard-pressing outside backs. Instead their strike runners were frustratingly often tackled before they could build momentum and they subsequently never asked any telling questions on attack.
They were fortunate that England were equally impotent, the hosts enjoying appreciable possession and territory, but they never seriously threatened to score outside of a couple of broken-field opportunities. So organised and so brutal was the Springbok defence – led by the loose trio and amplified by the rest of the team – that England were reduced to hopeful high kicks, painfully few of which found their mark.
It therefore became increasingly apparent that the result of the Test would hinge on the goal-kicking of Pat Lambie and Toby Flood. Lambie banked three penalties to Flood’s two before half-time. The England pivot, however, missed two, both stemming from scrum infringements. It was the only area of the game that England enjoyed clear dominance, but Flood’s failure to capitalise on those opportunities saw his side trail 9-6 at half-time.
The Springboks’ inability to engineer anything close to impressive on attack – not even their powerful rolling maul – was concerning, but then they profited from a bit of luck that gave them the ascendancy when Willem Alberts collected a ball that had squirted off an England player after a hacked attempted clearance. The big blindside flopped over the tryline and Lambie kicked his fourth penalty goal of the Test to give the Springboks a 10-point lead.
Meyer will lament the Springboks’ inability to pin the English in the half more than they did after establishing that buffer, ill-discipline and poor decision-making ensuring that there was never a let up in pressure.
With 12 minutes to play and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot sweeping through the stands, England found their stride. Alex Goode made it a four-point game with seven to play. This was a defining seven minutes in the Springboks’ tour, some would argue their season. A scrum on their 22m held firm when it most needed to. Ruan Pienaar cleared but England came again.
Then, inexplicably, England choose to kick a penalty with the final whistle imminent. Did they really think they would have the attacking prowess to score from at least 80m out? There’ll be a mass inquisition in the English press on Sunday. But the Springboks won’t care. Most will be nursing sore heads from a celebration they’ve earned.