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Monday, November 29, 2021

Eddie Jones and England rose to the challenge this autumn – I am delighted young players proved me wrong

Ten minutes before the end of the England vs South Africa game last Saturday, I had decided that for once I could write about glorious failure. I hardly ever do this, as it goes against my every competitive fibre, and it is no consolation.

It turned out not to be necessary, but the reasons that would have justified it form the framework against which you should judge England’s win over the Springboks. In top-level rugby any of the following would have been a distinct hurdle to winning – even more so against the world champions.

England dealt with starting their third-choice loosehead and hooker, being without captain Owen Farrell, losing the talismanic Manu Tuilagi after 10 minutes and having to reshuffle, and coping with 14 men for a crucial 10-minute period. They then outscored South Africa three tries to one and although fairness has little place in sport, there is a measure of justice in their victory. They had the greater ambition, but kicking continually and converting penalties is no advert for the wider game.

I did not think England’s young talent had the wherewithal to match South Africa physically, especially in the scrum. If you looked at the benches, the Springbok reserve front five is the equal, if not better, than their starters. Even if England managed to hang on for the first half, I doubted they could do so when changes were made. I was wrong and am delighted to be so.

The character shown by players such Bevan Rodd, Jamie Blamire and Nic Dolly was outstanding. Aged 21, 22 and 23 years, respectively, it is remarkable that they coped with more experienced opponents, however talented they are. In the front row you have to do the hours, because every scrum is a lesson, and you only stop learning when you stop playing.

After the game people averred all manner of ifs – if Handre Pollard had kicked all his goals, if there had been more than just six scrums in the game, if South Africa had not butchered two try-scoring chances – but England deserved this win.

England could easily have folded when they were under intense pressure in the second half; numerous teams have been suffocated by South Africa. Not only did they have the fortitude to handle the strain, but they also hit back with a try from Raffi Quirke. When it came to the denouement, it was the Springboks who lost their discipline and gave away unnecessary penalties that lost them the game.

Courtney Lawes’ leadership was exemplary and although Freddie Steward took his second successive man-of-the-match award, it could easily have gone to Lawes, who had one of his best games for England. A further point about his game was that it weakened the claim that Farrell is essential to England’s success, either from a playing or leadership point of view. Nobody should be calling for his exclusion because he is a class player, but the option of starting without him should no longer cause dread.

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