Boks hold all the aces
England coach Stuart Lancaster was encouraged about the improvements that his team could make but the reality is that it is more likely that it will be the Springboks who will lift a gear in the second test at Coca-Cola Park on Saturday.
Heyneke Meyer spoke after the 22-17 win like a coach who although relieved was less than satisfied with his team’s overall performance, and he confirmed that he did throw a bit of a tizzy fit at the players in the change-room at halftime. It was probably what inspired a much more energetic, aggressive and more direct performance in the second half, with a powerful third quarter effectively deciding the match.
In that period of dominance the Boks exposed some severe chinks in the England armoury, and while the visitors did strike back to score a try from the final move of the game, which was much to the chagrin of the perfectionist in Meyer, the game was effectively done and dusted long before then.
“I was disappointed in that last try because the mistakes in our defence were unacceptable, but we haven’t worked together as a defensive system before and you can coach defence. What you can’t coach is commitment, and there was plenty of that,” said Meyer.
If England want to turn around the result of the first test they are going to have to sort out their scrumming, which became progressively worse the longer the game lasted, and kudos to Meyer for the way his substitutions played a big part in the strangulation process that shut England out of the game.
Talking of substitutions, there are areas where the Bok team can be improved, and if Meyer does pay heed to some of the messages drummed out on a gloomy but ultimately dry day at Kings Park, England could be in even more trouble when they get to altitude.
For a start, Francois Hougaard is starting to look more and more like a player whose best position may be wing. He took way too long to clear the base in the first half and this contributed to the pedestrian and static game that the Boks produced in that period. Ruan Pienaar, when he came on, was far snappier and more decisive and it made a big difference.
“I can’t comment on whether or not it was Pienaar that made the difference but the Boks did start getting it together much better during the period when he was on,” said Lancaster.
“When we went to the break at 6-all we were in the game and we were in a confident mood. But you have to pay credit to the Springboks for the way they came out in the second half and took control. It was a lesson for us and we know there are improvements that can be made. Fortunately the guys know that, they have seen now where we can improve, and they will work on that.”
England lost Brad Barritt in the second half and it was a big blow, but it wasn’t a change that necessarily had much of an impact on the result, particularly as the Boks were completely dominant at forward, and their ascendancy probably should have netted them more points.
If there was a criticism of their second half performance it was the fact they still allowed England to be in the game at just 16-12 with a quarter of an hour to go. They had scored two tries to nil, should have scored more, and had Morne Steyn had his goalkicking boots properly laced on the South Africans might have unceremoniously trampled England into the lush Durban turf.
Another position which should see a change for the Boks in Johannesburg is fullback, where Zane Kirchner did nothing to vindicate his selection ahead of Patrick Lambie and missed a crucial tackle in the first half as England launched what for them was a rare attack on the Bok line.
Keegan Daniel, now that he has had a brief second taste of international rugby and showed moments of flashy brilliance during that cameo, should also come into strong consideration as a No 8 ahead of Pierre Spies. That would make it an all Sharks back row, with Willem Alberts the man of the match in Durban although that award could just as easily have gone to debutant Marcel Coetzee.
No-one was better on the day for the Boks though than Bryan Habana. The long serving and highly decorated left wing was a constant thorn in the side of the English in the first half with his excellent chasing and he was responsible for the best attacking moments during that period. It would be a surprise if he were not to add to his record haul of test tries before this series has run its course.
It would also be a surprise if England were to win a test. Durban showed us that there is a chasm between the two teams that will not be easily closed and South African rugby looks set to get what it so desperately needs -- the comprehensive series win that will ease Meyer’s nerves and thus make it easier for him to put in place the systems that will ensure sustained success.