Johnson pledges to stand by squad
South Africa 21
As the England squad broke camp yesterday to return to their clubs, their downbeat mood was offset by the knowledge they are all set to avoid the axe ahead of the Six Nations.
Martin Johnson did not quite recite marriage vows on Saturday evening but he did pledge that, for better or worse, this would be the group to take England through to the World Cup in New Zealand.
"We've got a team now, definitely, everyone wants to be in it and it's very competitive to get in," said the England manager dejected in defeat but far from disheartened. "This is the group."
The Investec series has been book-ended by losses to New Zealand and South Africa. If ever there was a manual produced as to how to gain knowledge on a rugby field, then these two matches would form the centrepiece.
The All Blacks -- sharp, wily and potent in taking their chances -- have their counterpoint in the Springboks, the heavy-metal rockers who pound and blast their way through a more limited repertoire. Effective, though, as England found to their cost at Twickenham: outmuscled and out-thought. England are wiser for their experiences.
The match against Australia was not in the realms of fantasy but the breathless exuberance and ambition of England's play that day has to be seen in context. It can't happen all the time, as England have discovered.
But remember that if teams come at England at the breakdown as Samoa did, or strong-arm them at the set-piece as South Africa did, then they will have to find other ways to prosper. Dan Carter's tactical kicking from hand is as much the reason for New Zealand's pre-eminence as the clever counter-attacking of Mils Muliaina.
The past ought not be another country for England. Forward play, grinding, tight-knit, make-'em-squeal rugby is not only part of their heritage, it can also be part of their future. South Africa showed that.
Of course, on its own, such one-eyed determinism is also flawed as a strategy. Again, the Springboks' rotten record in this year's Tri-Nations indicates that.
Adapting to circumstances is the key. England's World Cup-winning team were a multi-layered outfit, as various French and New Zealand sides have been down the generations.
If England are to move forward, they first have to move back a little. They need to find a point of equilibrium, to understand that subtle changes of direction, or even major shifts of emphasis, are needed at Test level. They failed in that regard against the Springboks.
England did not attempt to use the disruption caused by injuries to their key players, out-half Toby Flood and flanker Tom Croft, as a reason for their difficulties.
It was a tight call to leave Chris Ashton on the field after he clobbered himself tackling Victor Matfield. There is little doubt that he was far from his sharpest thereafter, dozy defence down his flank letting in opposite number Lwazi Mvovo for a try near the end.
Matfield endured, Ashton was wobbly -- it summed up the hosts' day.
England's line-out was weakened after Croft's departure midway through the first half with a damaged shoulder. It is just as well the medical team are in fine shape themselves, for they covered huge yardage to tend to fallen bodies.
The relentless power of the Springboks' play was remarkable. South Africa played with the will of the damned. England's defence had to be resolute, and it was.
Courtney Lawes confirmed his growing status, while Ben Youngs, Ben Foden and Mark Cueto all had their moments. England's scrum got suckered into indiscretion at the engagement. Ill discipline in conceding penalties all over the field is a real issue for England.
South Africa took full advantage; Willem Alberts crashing over midway through the second half after yardage gained from a driven line-out.
England's late riposte from a Foden interception was a token gesture.
For now and the foreseeable future, this is England's finest on offer, the group that will, injuries permitting, head to Cardiff for the opening game of the Six Nations on February 4, a Friday night to boot. They still have much to prove. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
ENGLAND -- B Foden; C Ashton (M Banahan 73), M Tindall, S Hape, M Cueto; T Flood (C Hodgson 34), B Youngs (D Care 62); A Sheridan, D Hartley (S Thompson 73), D Cole (D Wilson 67), C Lawes (S Shaw 67), T Palmer, T Croft (H Fourie 22), L Moody (capt), N Easter.
SOUTH AFRICA -- Z Kirchner (A Jacobs 48); G Aplon (F Hougaard 59), F Steyn, J de Villiers, L Mvovo; M Steyn, R Pienaar; T Mtawarira, B du Plessis (A Strauss 80), J du Plessis (CJ van der Linde 53), B Botha (F van der Merwe 65), V Matfield, D Stegmann (W Alberts 49), J Smith, P Spies.
Ref -- G Clancy (Ireland).