England avoided a series whitewash in Port Elizabeth with a 14-14 draw, salvaging something from an otherwise fruitless tour. STYLI CHARALAMBOUS reports on the sibling-kissing contest that was the final test of the inbound tour.
Had Morne Steyn landed either of the two missed penalties, a conversion attempt or one of his easier drop-goal attempts in a green and gold jersey, we’d be singing about a series walkover and how no comments section exists next to the scoreline. But he didn’t, and the final test turned out to be as dark and damp as the coastal city’s weather, with the Boks rather fortunate not to be on the losing side of this encounter.
England came out a determined side, albeit slightly depleted from the battering at Coca-Cola Ellis Park a week ago. With Captain Courageous Robshaw and scrummaging powerhouse Corbisiero out of the starting line-up due to injury, and the Boks smelling the blood of 3-0 whitewash, it was surprising to see the English dominate the early phases. Rare Springbok attacks were quickly shut down by a minimum duet of English defenders that took a gang-style approach to protecting their turf. With a loose trio making a nuisance of themselves on attack, as well as pilfering too many balls that should have be quarantined by the Bok pack, the possession stats showed England dominating with 70% of the ball during the first quarter of the match.
Early infringements saw each team’s kickers exchange penalties until Tom Palmer charged down another one of Francois Hougaard’s slow-motion clearance kicks. Livewire scrumhalf and man-of-the-match Danny Care took a quick tap penalty from the resulting infringement and caught the bungling Jannie du Plessis in the last line of defence to crash over for a try that saw England lead 8-3 after 12 minutes.
Two penalisable mistakes by England saw Steyn help South Africa to a 9-8 lead as the teams headed to half-time, but England would have taken heart from the dominance in possession and territory. The Boks, too, were suffering from the injury count of the previous two weeks' physicalities, sorely missing the human battering ram that is Willem Alberts.
Without their mean machine, the Boks looked impotent in attack. Local debutant Jacques Potgieter was about as useful and effective as a government-issued prophylactic, while the lock pairing of Etzebeth and Kruger were shown up in the ever-important possession hubs that lineouts have become, losing the first two of the second half and Bismarck du Plessis only added to the frustration with a wayward throw.
Following the substitution of Hougaard with Ruan Pienaar, the Boks made the most of a Wynand Olivier break for the replacement scrumhalf to put the ever-dangerous JP Pietersen away for an unconverted try, bringing the score to 14-11 after 61 minutes, and rekindled the hopes of 3-0 win. If Olivier enjoyed his best outing in a Bok jersey, Morne Steyn suffered his worst, which resulted in the local crowd booing the Blue Bull pivot. Steyn is by and large picked for his kicking, tactical and off the tee, and neither were working on Saturday. Having nearly cost the Boks the previous test with an erratic radar, and followed up by such a dismal display, every scribe and fan outside of Pretoria will be calling for a more enterprising choice at flyhalf. Consider this my support of that call.
Francois Steyn, Pat Lambie and Elton Jantjies are worthwhile replacements at kicking for poles, whilst the latter two are far more likely to engineer victories against our Australasian foes when the Rugby Championship rolls round. Steyn, it seems, has reached his expiry date at international level rugby but it will take the losing of a test match before Heyneke Meyer contemplates his axing.
Owen Farrell then equalised matters with a penalty, bringing the score to 14 apiece with eight minutes left on the clock, even though the Boks had a penalty and drop-goal attempt to close out the game in the final minutes of the Test. By missing these opportunities, England were inspired to push through 20 phases of rugby in the dying seconds in an attempt to clinch victory over the Boks, and some respectability to the series scorecard. When Farrell’s drop-goal skewed violently left of the uprights, the hooter having sounded seconds before, the Boks and England had played out only their second stalemate in over a hundred years of Test rugby. They say a draw in sport is like kissing your sister, but this performance was nowhere near as fun as that.
The Boks will know that the term “lacklustre” was probably a compliment in describing today’s efforts from the men in green and gold. They were directionless, and without a plan B, when bashing their way up the middle of the park didn’t work. They’re unlikely to suffer this level of depletion in the loose forward ranks anytime soon, where the human battering rams of Burger, Smith and Alberts can unleash legalised grievous bodily harm on their opponents.
Series win aside, it would just be nice to know that we have something else in the bag for those occasions when “smash and grab” doesn’t yield the desired results. For that to happen, we need to see less of the Blue Bulls players (and mentality) in our approach and sadly, that is unlikely to happen any time soon.
For Meyer and the Boks, however, they will happily have taken a 2-0 series victory over an English team that impressed in the Six Nations. We cannot take away the kudos of keeping the best home union team winless on this tour, especially after such limited preparation time. But this is South Africa, and we do expect more from a team that is capable of sitting at the head of the table amongst the rugby elite, and for that to happen, much hard work and introspection lies ahead for this team. DM
The points scorers:
For South Africa:
Pens: Steyn (3)
Pens: Flood, Farrell (2)
South Africa: 15 Gio Aplon, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jean de Villiers, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 François Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Jacques Potgieter, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Juandré Kruger, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Werner Kruger, 18 Flip van der Merwe, 19 Ryan Kankowski, 20 Ruan Pienaar, 21 Elton Jantjies, 22 Bjorn Basson.
England: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Manusamoa Tuilagi, 11 Ben Foden, 10 Toby Flood, 9 Danny Care, 8 Thomas Waldrom, 7 James Haskell, 6 Tom Johnson, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Tom Palmer, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley (captain), 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Lee Mears, 17 Paul Doran Jones, 18 Mouritz Botha, 19 Phil Dowson, 20 Lee Dickson, 21 Owen Farrell, 22 Brad Barritt.
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), John Lacey (Ireland)
TMO: Giulio De Santis (Italy)
Photo: England's Mouritz Botha attempts to break past South African defenders Jean de Villiers (L) and Wynand Olivier (R) during their third rugby union test match in Port Elizabeth June 23, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings