South Africa domination sums up ugly year for stuttering England

Sports

TWICKENHAM — If anyone wondered whether prematch talk about their boss’ suspension would weigh heavy on South Africa’s minds, then it was in stark contrast to the light work they showed in dispatching England in their own backyard on Saturday.

The build-up to this game was dominated by talk of South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus — namely his suspension for tweets critical of referee Wayne Barnes — but the reigning world champions were unfazed by an England side who end this autumn series with just one win to their name.

Fans who poured into Twickenham expecting to see the same rip-roaring, spirited England who battled back to a remarkable draw with New Zealand last weekend would have left hugely disappointed. South Africa dominated Eddie Jones’ side, both on the pitch and the scoreboard, as England trailed by 21 points with 23 minutes left. Another miracle was needed. This time, it didn’t materialise.

Thomas Du Toit’s red card for a shoulder barge on Luke Cowan-Dickie’s head gave England rare hope in the closing stages. The Twickenham crowd let out a huge roar when replacement Henry Slade finally crossed for England’s first try in the 72nd minute — but it proved to be their only score as South Africa’s defence snuffed out any chance of a comeback to round off a resounding 27-13 win, their first at Twickenham since 2014.

The result confirmed a sobering statistic for England, who finish this year with more defeats than wins for the first time under Jones. Their record for 2022 amounts to six losses, five wins and the draw with New Zealand.

For every step forward, there have been two steps back — they finished a second consecutive Six Nations campaign with just two wins earlier this year, before claiming an impressive series victory in Australia. They then recovered from a shock defeat to Argentina in the autumn internationals to thrash Japan and impress against New Zealand, before this latest setback.

“I think it’s a bit of a watershed game for us,” Jones said. “We came into this game with high expectations of how we wanted to play on the back of New Zealand and Japan, and if you look at the first three games [of the autumn internationals] we’ve dominated territory and possession, and this game South Africa were a bit too tough for us in the air, a bit too tough for us at the set-piece, so I know exactly where we’ve got to improve.”

This was a game which was always likely to be defined by those who were not present as much as those who were. Erasmus was absent, seeing out his two-match ban for tweets which appeared to question an official. The outspoken Springboks director had only just returned from a 10-month ban for a 62-minute rant against referee Nic Berry during the British & Irish Lions’ tour of South Africa, and the spotlight was firmly on Saturday’s official Angus Gardner as a result.

South Africa posted a statement on Saturday morning saying that Erasmus had held “constructive talks” with World Rugby over his comments, but there was no reason to worry about how Gardner would react. He showed as much minutes before the end. “You’re not the referee,” he told Owen Farrell as the England captain approached him in the 74th minute. The clash was firmly in his control, which was more than could be said for Jones’ misfiring England side.

On the pitch, South Africa were rarely troubled. They provided the first piece of flare in the 31st minute through Damian Willemse’s drop-goal after a penalty apiece from Farrell and Faf De Klerk, while the Springboks showed they were not just about kicking moments later. Willie Le Roux neatly offloaded for Kurt-Lee Arendse, who raced away from Marcus Smith to score his side’s first try. Another De Klerk penalty meant England went into the break 14-3 down and with the same sinking feeling they had experienced against the All Blacks.

Jones had said his team would replicate the Springboks’ “Bomb squad” tactic — bringing on arguably their best set of front-rowers early in the second half — but Ellis Genge, Will Stuart and Cowan-Dickie were unable to check South Africa’s lead. Another Willemse drop-goal put the visitors further ahead, before Tom Curry was sin-binned for leaning on the ruck. Eben Etzebeth muscled over for the Springboks’ second try and De Klerk asserted their dominance with another penalty, which took them over the line despite Du Toit’s dismissal and England’s attempt at another late show.

“I think the forwards were outstanding today,” South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber said. “They gave us a nice platform to attack off and I think then the backs used their opportunities when they got that good platform. So I thought it was a team effort in terms of the forwards laying a nice foundation for us and the backs having a go.”

Victory was the ideal way to close out a turbulent 2022 for South Africa, who will go into next year’s World Cup with renewed hope they can retain their crown from three years ago. By contrast, whether England can replicate their performances from 2019 seems more in doubt than ever before.

“We want to win, we don’t want to get beat by a big score by South Africa and we don’t want to have the worst record since 2008, so it’s a problem — I accept full responsibility for that,” Jones said.

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