All the talk before the match was about what a tough Test this would be, England’s players and coaches spoke about how they wanted to “front up”, “take them on physically”, and “match them up front”, as the assistant coach Richard Cockerill put it: “You know what’s coming with the Springboks.” All of which was true enough. It was a nasty Test, played on a nasty evening, when winter seemed to have come rushing in all of a sudden on a stiff, swirling wind, and with a lick of drizzle. It was a game of scrums, thumps, slips, smashes, and penalties, played under high pressure.
And in all that it was, like Cockerill said, everything you would expect from a Test against the Springboks. Thing is, thirty minutes in, it became painfully obvious there was a lot more to this South Africa team too. It was as if England had been so busy looking at the club their opponent had in their right hand that they hadn’t noticed the dagger they were holding behind their back in the left. Because South Africa weren’t so much stronger than England, but they were a whole lot sharper and savvier, the gap between the teams was in the precision of their passing, and the rapier pace they had out wide.
You could see it in the brilliantly ruthless try scored by Kurt-Lee Arendse, which broke the game open. It turned on the slightest mistake, when Freddie Steward was a stride too slow to catch Damien Willemse after he caught Marcus Smith’s kick on the edge of South Africa’s 22. That was as much of an opening as Willemse needed, he broke downfield and released Willie le Roux, who put through Arendse. The three of them ripped England to pieces in the space of seven seconds. And it was there, too, in the two drop goals picked off by Willemse either side of half-time.
It was smart sword work, in between all cudgel stuff. It felt like England had just about matched South Africa at that in the loose, if not at the set pieces. Eddie Jones had set them up for it, with two of his usual front row, Ellis Genge and Luke Cowan-Dickie, on the bench, ready to come on and fresh against South Africa’s bomb squad in the second half. He must have been thinking of what they had done to Kyle Sinckler and Mako Vunipola on the Lions tour back in 2021, when Trevor Nyakane and Vincent Koch turned the third Test by winning two scrum penalties against them in the final minutes, although neither Nyakane or Koch were here at Twickenham. They had both been called up by their clubs.
Jones spoke at length afterwards about how England had been beaten at the scrum, which tells you that his plan didn’t work out. It’s a Sisyphean task packing down against the starting trio of Ox Nché, Bongi Mbonambi and Frans Malherbe, there’s an awful lot of shoving to be done, and just when you think it’s won you have to start all over again at the next scrum. Sinckler and Vunipola took a hell of a pummelling while they were doing it, mind, and the referee, Angus Gardner, had to bark at his assistants to “please control the medics” because England’s doctors kept sneaking on to tend to the two of them.
Jones ended up making his front row changes at half-time, so the two units got 40 minutes each, trouble was, England were already eleven points down by then, and scrabbling to get back in the game. When Willemse kicked that second drop goal right after the interval, they were trailing by 14, just like they had been against New Zealand the previous week. It was a very different match, but one that ended up with England in a similar sort of position. They were 19 points down with ten minutes to play against 14 men then, and they were 21 points down with 20 minutes to play against 14 now, after one of South Africa’s replacement props, Thomas du Toit, was sent off.
But there was no comeback this time, or even a hint of one. South Africa controlled the final 10 minutes too, and the crucial final few minutes were played out deep in England’s 22. A lot of fans left before the final whistle, and a lot of those who stayed on booed England after it. It had been a painful evening, not just because of all the cuts, fractures, and bruises, although god knows there were plenty of those, but because they were utterly outplayed by a team whose speed and precision made them look so lumpen and slow. England offered blood, toil, tears and sweat, and found it was nothing like enough against a team who had all of that and plenty more too.