England’s difficulties started as early as the second minute when an England
feed to a scrum was unaccountably allowed to run though and out the other
side into the grateful arms of Willem Alberts for South Africa’s first try.
But if there was an element of good fortune to the Boks’ first score, there
was nothing remotely lucky about the rest of the half. This was a Bok side
markedly different from the disorganised, nervous rabble that turned up in
Durban. This was South Africa in all their pomp. Big, physical men taking an
almost sadistic pleasure in tossing England defenders around as if they were
The Boks seemed immeasurably better for the first Test hit-out than England
did. Jean de Villiers looked like the centre he was before he moved to
Munster. The Bok captain was hungry, hounding so-called English attackers,
and he never stopped, not for a moment. Pierre Spies was another who had
shaken off the cobwebs of Durban. This was his kind of game, a dry track at
altitude where he could pick off defenders at his pleasure. Add in the work
of Eben Etzebeth, the continued excellence of men like Alberts and hooker
Bismarck du Plessis, who played like a makeshift back, too much at times,
and you have some idea of what England were up against.
At times in the first half the men against boys description did not do justice
to the magnitude of the mismatch. England had to commit too many bodies to
the breakdown to win or hang on to the ball, and their scrum and line-out
were under real pressure.
England’s back three were also uncomfortable judging the flight of the ball
which flew further in the thin air. Ben Foden had one or two difficult
moments, but few players in world rugby would have been comfortable under
the barrage launched by Morne Steyn.
One England mistake and the ball was 60 metres down field. And if Steyn’s
length was remarkable, his accuracy was something else. Midway through the
first half he dropped the ball in behind David Strettle. It was a 40-metre
kick and he had about half-a-metre in which to land the ball. Needless to
say, he managed it perfectly.
And with all this momentum the points came. The Boks were three tries to the
good through Alberts, du Plessis and Francois Hougaard by the 18th minute,
and they were still scoring at roughly a point a minute after 24 minutes.
England did manage a try by Toby Flood after Ben Morgan and Ben Youngs had
upped the tempo with two quickly taken penalties but they had no answer to
South Africa’s monopoly of territory and possession.
It all threatened to get a whole lot worse when England gave away too many
cheap penalties at the beginning of the second period. But somehow they
stayed in the match.
Youngs reacted first to a Bok line-out overthrow to score and then scored
again after a stunning England driving maul had marched right up to South
Africa’s line. This was the period when Steyn’s kicking boots deserted him,
a cause for national mourning in this part of the world, and the period in
which Bok coach Heyneke Meyer unloaded the bench.
Big mistake. South Africa’s disorganisation was apparent as Hougaard, who had
enjoyed a much better game, was shunted to the wing. Tackles were missed,
mistakes were made and England suddenly found themselves getting close to a
Dan Cole stood tall at this point in the game and there were splendid
contributions from Flood and Chris Robshaw before Pietersen sucked the
resistance out of England with a triumphant final try. England shaded the
second half 17-11. How they must wish that they had started stronger, more
And that is the question which lingers over the final Test of the series. The
Boks’ physical supremacy was crushing at times yesterday but there is an
arrogance about their rugby which saw them blow several gilt-edged chances
through selfish glory-hunting players. Du Plessis was especially at fault
here. On that basis you could argue that it was simply Bok carelessness
which allowed England back into the match.
Maybe. But it is also permissible to think that there is a substance to this
England team which is slowly beginning to emerge. They were poor in patches,
and they may have lost the war, but there is a significant battle still to
come in Port Elizabeth this Saturday. Seconds out, round three.