England 15 South Africa 16: Lessons learned as Red Rose lose tight game
England 15 South Africa 16: James Thompson looks at the key talking points after the Red Rose throw away a golden opportunity
England fall foul of lady luck
Much like last week England will once again view this as an opportunity missed. South Africa came to Twickenham ranked as the second-best team in the world after a transitional year and while they won on Saturday, it was far from convincing. England head coach Stuart Lancaster made six changes to his starting line-up in light of the loss against Australia, and were it not for a very fortuitous ricochet, he would be celebrating victory. The Springboks scored the only try of the game at the beginning of the second half in the most bizarre of circumstances. The South Africans lost control of the ball just short of England’s try line only for Toby Flood’s clearing hack to rebound off a Springbok leg and Tom Wood knock the ball straight into the arms of flanker Willem Alberts, who only had to fall down to score. Pat Lambie added the conversion and England were 10 points adrift. They did extremely well to come back into the game and when England had a penalty with two minutes to go, captain Chris Robshaw opted to kick for the posts despite being four points behind their visitors. He was probably influenced by last week’s events when England failed to take up penalty opportunities in good positions, but yet again his decision-making will be criticised. England were on top at the time and a kick to the corner could have resulted in a try but instead they had to settle for three points.
The small margins make the biggest differences
While England have now lost two out of their three autumn internationals, it must be remembered the Red Rose are a team in transition. Many may criticise Lancaster’s poor record against the southern hemisphere’s elite, but while they lost, the home side performed were much better. The key problem is England have not yet clicked and are relying on individual brilliance which won’t win Test matches. Robshaw’s poor decision-making aside, England were left to rue basic errors. Although they were dominated in the line-out, the English forwards performed well in the loose but too many handling errors caused England to throw away momentum. Somewhat controversially, Ben Youngs was chosen over Danny Care at scrum-half, and he and his fly-half partners, Toby Flood and Owen Farrell, were poor. England were guily of kicking away possession with aimless punts, and despite poor weather conditions, they tried to force the game too often. Instead of sympathetic passes they launched the ball at static team-mates and the result was often a knock on. If England can’t get the basics right then they won’t trouble the top teams any time soon.
The importance of Tuilagi
England’s ability to keep in touch with the Springboks in the second half was largely down to the excellence of outside-centre Manu Tuilagi. His two breaks ignited the crowd and helped England create something from nothing in yet another abject attacking display. Although neither resulted in points on the board, it showed his reading of the game is continuously evolving and he is beginning to become the world-class player many predicted. While some would prefer him to be shifted out to the wing, a better option would be to move him to inside-centre and bring in someone more subtle and skillful outside him. England have the option with London Irish’s Jonathan Joseph waiting for his opportunity but it would represent a change of emphasis in Lancaster’s attacking vision for the team. The Red Rose head coach has preferred the more solid partnership of Bradley Barritt and Tuilagi, but moving Leicester Tigers star inside would allow for greater variety in their back-line, resulting in a greater attacking threat. With the right men around him, Tuilagi could easily evolve into an attacking springboard for England, much like Ma’a Nonu for New Zealand or Jamie Roberts for Wales.
Where do England go from here?
With the spectre of New Zealand looming on the horizon, England fans may be beginning to fear next week’s visit from the world champions. While there are clear issues to be addressed, with basics such as passing and decision-making needing to be rectified, England go into this game with low expectations. Both Australia and South Africa represent missed opportunities but New Zealand are expected to win and this may allow England to play with some degree of freedom. Lancaster was brave in making so many changes this week and the majority of his players responded with improved performances. To combat the kicking game of South Africa, he opted to field Harlequin’s full-back Mike Brown on the left wing and he performed admirably with some strong running, although his lack of experience was highlighted with a lack of support for a Chris Ashton break. England took a risk against the Springboks and shouldn’t be afraid of doing so against the All Blacks. England’s half-back and centre partnerships didn’t create any attacking platform against South Africa, and while a week on the training ground will not rectify it, he could opt to recall Danny Care and start Jonathan Joseph to get create some attacking momentum. Whatever happens next weekend, English fans should remember the core of this squad will be in the 2015 World Cup squad and will be better for experiences such as these.