Boks dig deep to achieve objective
The Springboks again played in spurts but by slipping a gear early in the second half they did enough to earn themselves a 16-15 win over England at Twickenham that ensures they finish the year on a positive note and achieved their objective of ending this tour unbeaten.
It was more gutsy than pretty or emphatic, and this was the closest England have come to beating South Africa since a seven-match winning sequence for England was ended here by Jake White’s team in 2006.
But while the margin of victory and periods where they lacked conviction earned the Boks criticism in their previous wins on tour, that is unlikely to be the case this time.
As skipper Jean de Villiers said during the week, “We’ll be happy with just a one-point win”.
They were to prove prophetic words, and against these opponents, and at this venue, that one point was enough to ensure that the Boks will be able to look back at the 2012 season as a relatively successful one.
The final analysis reads 12 matches played, seven won, two drawn and three lost. Not the stuff to suggest that they will be world champs next year, but then the World Cup is not being played in 2013.
Quite clearly this year has been about rebuilding, and the manner of the victory here, like the one across the Irish Sea two weeks ago, said a lot for how this Bok side has grown in terms of composure, togetherness and maturity.
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The wet-weather match produced some quite astoundingly poor and error-ridden rugby at times, but fortunately most of it came from an England team that, if we are to use the criticism so often directed at the Boks, simply lacked ambition.
And it needs to be said too that the Boks were helped by perhaps one of the poorest rugby decisions seen at this level. Just why they chose to kick for goal when they were down by four points with only two minutes remaining but strongly on attack, only they will know.
It enabled the Boks to finish the game in England territory and with a relative degree of comfort.
The Boks did make mistakes too. The game might not have been so close had Ruan Pienaar, who did not have his greatest game at scrumhalf, not kicked directly into touch when he should have known he had carried the ball back from a scrum that was set on the 22.
That gave England the territory they needed to force the penalty which cut the deficit to four points with eight minutes to go.
And then Patrick Lambie made the first mistake of the game for him when he kicked directly into touch from the restart.
England, as they had umpteen times already, forced a penalty at the scrum that was set on the halfway line, and they kicked the ball into the Bok 22, which was where they stayed until the decision to kick for goal, far from increasing the pressure on the Boks, actually eased it.
NOT A PRETTY GAME
It was not a pretty game, but then it was never going to be. Rain fell over London for much of the day building up to the game, and the underfoot conditions were soft and the ball slippery.
This was not a day to debate Meyer’s game-plan – there really was only one way to play it, and for the most part the Boks did it better than England. The field kicking was more accurate from South Africa – come to think of it, so was the place-kicking – and the chasing from the Boks was on the mark.
Whereas the Boks, with Zane Kirchner like the Rock of Gibraltar at the back, were composed when the ball was kicked onto them, and the England players arrived sporadically, the England players frequently received ball and man at the same time.
The Boks were helped by a key substitution at the break. When Pat Cilliers came on after halftime, the scrum did appear to settle, and it helped the Boks slip a gear.
Their try might have been considered fortuitous, with Willem Alberts going over for the score after a JP Pietersen fly-hack had ricocheted off an England player, thus placing Alberts onside when it was spilled forward by a defender. But it was the product of five of the most assured minutes of rugby from the Boks as they started strongly after halftime, and much like they did at Aviva Stadium, effectively won the match in that period.
Although England continued to win the possession battle for much of the game, the Boks, also as they had in Dublin, appeared to get stronger with their physical presence the longer the match lasted, with Eben Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen again being stand-outs. The first half can be couched as the England scrum up against the Springbok lineout.
The Boks had real problems in the scrummages, and from an earlier stage of the game they were under massive pressure.
Most of the damage was inflicted by England loosehead Alex Corbisiero, who had Du Plessis wishing that he had been able to take an early holiday back on the family fan near Bethlehem.
England won three scrum penalties and a free kick at the scrums in the first half alone. Yet as dominant as England were in the scrums, so the Boks were dominant in the lineouts.
And on a day when you had to kick rather than handle the ball, the Boks got their tactics right, and there were more lineouts than scrums. This enabled the visitors to get the foothold they needed after so much earlier scrambling.
The Boks were under the kosh for most of the half, and considering how much pressure they had to withstand it was quite astounding that they actually led by three points at halftime (9-6).
That they did can be attributed to excellent scrambling defence, some at times bankrupt England attacking play, and the lineout travails that prevented England from getting the necessary momentum.
The match started with Ruan Pienaar having a kick charged down. Four years ago it was Pienaar who set the flow in the South African favour en route to a record 42-6 victory here when he charged down a similar Danny Cipriani attempted clearance and he ran through to grab the ball and score a try.
For a while it looked like the charge down in the other direction may as significant in setting the tone, and it was all England in the first five minutes.
However the penalty England forced when Patrick Lambie was caught in possession just out from his own line in trying to recover Pienaar’s blunder was missed by England flyhalf Toby Flood, and he was to miss another much easier one later in the half.
Lambie, by contrast, was on target with all three of his kicks at goal, with third putting them into the lead for the first time in the match after 25 minutes. They were never to be headed again.
ENGLAND – Penalties: Toby Flood (2), Owen Farrell (3).
SOUTH AFRICA –Try: Willem Alberts. Conversion: Patrick Lambie. Penalties: Lambie (3).