England 28-31 South Africa
Clock ticking on error-prone England
Tom Hamilton at Twickenham
November 15, 2014
South Africa celebrate Jan Serfontein's try © Getty Images

Small margins. Once again England are left clutching to 'what ifs' as they fell to another defeat to one of the southern hemisphere big three at their once formidable Twickenham fortress.

England dominated possession and territory but were let down by clumsy errors - knock-ons littered the first half - and again questions were raised over their kicking game and their ability to turn time on the ball into points. "We could have been smarter," was Lancaster's assessment. For the victor, Jean de Villiers summed it up neatly: "It's quality of possession rather than percentage that counts."

South Africa played as expected - they were physical and, when it mattered, clinical. And they also possess that vital ingredient which international teams search for - the ability to produce moments of magic - as they spun together a wonderful move for Cobus Reinachs' try in the first throws of the second half.

England are now left to reflect on an unwanted run of defeats by South Africa - the last time they tasted victory was in 2006. A week later the Boks won; it was a win that gave Jake White a stay of execution and a year on the Springboks were world champions.

Things can be turned around a year out from a World Cup but England still have more questions than answers. The form of Owen Farrell will be a concern and they are still searching for a centre combination they can stick with over the next 10 Tests before their opener against Fiji.

"We'll not panic, we will stick to the course we are on." Lancaster's belief is admirable but the pressure is increasing by the defeat."

The immediate post-mortems will focus on England's shortcomings and the differences separating them from the world's best sides. South Africa came into the match smarting from their loss to Ireland and despite his ageing years, Victor Matfield, bar the sin-bin, was imperious while Schalk Burger caused all sorts of havoc in the back-row alongside his formidable lieutenants Duane Vermeulen and Marcell Coetzee.

Then there was the move which brought about Reinach's try as Pat Lambie and Willie le Roux combined in wonderful harmony to put the scrum-half over. Even referee Steve Walsh was impressed, remarking to the breathless Le Roux: "Nice pass mate, nice pass."

England could have won this Test. While they lost 3-0 while playing against 14-man New Zealand last week, they prevailed 14-7 this time around when Matfield was sin-binned. They were lucky to get the first try as Bryan Habana was clearly in touch when he caught the ball that should have led to a Springboks lineout. Lady luck on occasion smiled on England but when the pressure told, when they had the Boks on the canvas, Farrell's kicking was wayward and late on, they lost a key lineout 10 metres from the Springboks' line. They were also let down by Dylan Hartley's reckless boot - the decision to sin-bin him no doubt irked those traditionalists who favour the old days of being able to ruck breakdown perpetrators out of the way but he should not have given Walsh the chance to get involved.

Lancaster will take heart from another efficient performance from his ever-improving second-row partnership of Dave Attwood and Courtney Lawes while Ben Morgan's impact was sizeable from the bench. But making life easy for the opponent is a concern.

The Springboks also didn't have to do much for their 10-0 lead after 15 minutes. "The frustration was giving those points away when they didn't have to work hard for them," Lancaster said of England's start. Farrell's indecision in defence saw the Boks take a 3-0 lead from the subsequent penalty while Jan Serfontein picked off Danny Care's lazy pass to canter under the posts. Their second try was wonderful while their third came while down to 14 men and the call to go for the corner was courageous from Jean de Villiers.

It was business as usual for the Springboks and with games to come against Italy and Wales, they will hope to finish their tour with three wins from four. Up next for England are Samoa and there are likely to be changes. George Ford should start at fly-half while Morgan and James Haskell deserve a run in the back-row.

The frustration of their error-count was evident in the post-match press conference for Lancaster but he feels they are close to knocking over the world's best sides and he will stick to his guns for the next two Tests. "We'll not panic, we will stick to the course we are on." Lancaster's belief is admirable but the pressure is increasing by the defeat.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.

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