South Africa 22-17 England, Durban
Battered, bruised and better to come
June 9, 2012
South Africa's Bryan Habana and Patrick Lambie collide with England's Dan Cole during a bruising encounter at Kings Park © PA Photos
England's best chance of a victory in this series may have ended in defeat but the performance offered yet more evidence that they are at least on the right track under Stuart Lancaster.
On a day that had seen Ireland over-powered by New Zealand in Auckland and Wales come up short against Australia in Brisbane, England arguably came the closest to upsetting the world order with a battling if limited display against the Springboks that will provide valuable lessons in their quest to be world-beaters come the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
A side relatively short on experience went toe-to-toe with South Africa on their own patch and, while the new-look hosts were not at their best, they will be in no doubt that they were in a real contest. England's industry in the opening period did much to play on the Boks' insecurity as they embarked on a new era under new coach Heyneke Meyer. It was by no means a complete performance, as a glance at the scoreboard will verify, but make no mistake this was a major test of their credentials and one that they passed to a certain extent.
An enviable team spirit continues to fire their development. New cap Tom Johnson took a starring role in that all-action opening and made a seamless step up from the Premiership to the Test-match stage. He clearly relished the physical battle and, along with his captain Chris Robshaw, tore into the breakdown battle. Another debutant, prop Joe Marler, was another undaunted by the prospect of a fired up Boks pack while fullback Mike Brown, making his first Test start in four years, looked no stranger to international rugby.
The same could not be said for fly-half Owen Farrell who, despite landing 12 points with the boot, failed to get the England backline firing. A lack of a creative spark and a failure to gel with scrum-half Ben Youngs meant the tourists were not able to capitalise on their early endeavour with a Chris Ashton break a highlight brought to an abrupt halt by some excellent scrambling defence. However, a final flourish that produced a try for Ben Foden was more than an act of defiance and is reason for hope going forward.
England' shortcomings in attack, along with an injury to centre Brad Barritt, could well trigger changes ahead of the second Test. Notable cameos from Toby Flood and Jonathan Joseph may prompt their promotion with scrum-half Danny Care also in line for a starting berth.
South Africa will be relieved to have come through such a stern test relatively unscathed with a dominant second half display snuffing out England's challenge. The squad only came together a week ago and there was clear concern on Meyer's face ahead of kick off but he should not have been too worried with his side in safe hands in the form of captain Jean de Villiers. The veteran centre produced a typically gutsy and inspirational display to ensure there was no upset in his first match as Springboks captain.
The hosts were not without their own impressive debutants, with flanker Marcell Coetzee looking far from out of place in the Boks' back-row, but he had to play second fiddle to Willem Alberts who edged out his skipper for the man of the match honours thanks largely to the way he helped his side take control of an arm-wrestle of a contest after the break.
On the same action-packed day that had seen All Blacks speedster Julian Savea emerge as a star, it was great to witness one of the game's established wingers return to something near his best. Bryan Habana carved his way through the England defence on several occasions with the kind of fleet-footed abandon that the Springboks have sorely missed of late. Injury threatened to bring a premature end to his contribution but he returned to torment England in the second half and, while he was not able to cross the whitewash, rest assured he will at some point in this series if he continues in this rich vein of form.
On this evidence, these sides look well-matched but both can improve significantly and crucially you sense that South Africa have a few more gears available to them. Whether that will see them inflict greater pain on England in the coming weeks depends on whether Lancaster's side can learn from this defeat and fast.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.