Sometimes in life there are days when absolutely nothing goes to plan.
England endured one of them yesterday in losing not only the second Test, but the series as well. While a second-half fightback from 28-10 down restored some dignity, the first 40 minutes were horrendous. A team that had appeared to have healed itself after the World Cup debacle is wobbling again.
In some ways England's abject start was their salvation. The Springboks, clearly convinced they were heading for a 50-point victory, removed many of their best forwards and were guilty of flagrant glory hunting, butchering two or three further tries. Amid the confusion, Ben Youngs slipped over for two close-range scores and, crazily, the Boks entered the final 10 minutes leading only 31-27. It took a sweeping try, started and finished by JP Pietersen, to dismiss the prospect of a truly staggering turnaround.
At 22-3 down, it was a very different story. Imagine being strapped to a railroad and watching locomotive smoke approaching in the distance.
England's players must have experienced similar emotions as they stood awaiting a conversion for the third time inside the first quarter. If there is one team to whom you do not want to donate a hefty start, it is South Africa in their high-altitude citadel.
To their credit, England declined to buckle, but the Springbok's largesse was a significant contributory factor. Until the final quarter, Stuart Lancaster's bold selection did not so much backfire as self-destruct. The experiment of playing Manu Tuilagi at inside centre did not pay off, albeit behind a pack that came a distant second in the loose.
England were unrecognisable from the team that beat France in March. Playing in ones and twos, physically outgunned, pedestrian with ball in hand and lacking intensity in defence, the opening 40 minutes was a horror show.
As Wales and Ireland discovered earlier in the day, beating southern-hemisphere opposition on their own patch takes some doing, even if you happen to be leading in the final seconds. If, as England did, you concede two tries inside the first eight minutes, it becomes an impossible assignment.
Three-Test series allow the screen-staring analysts to earn their popcorn, plugging holes from the week before and subtly shifting their chess pieces around, but the tape of the first half is probably best ignored. The best bet would be to show the players the second half and remind them the Boks reserves are far from world-beaters. This series, though, has disappeared into thin air.
Scorers -- South Africa: Alberts, B du Plessis, Hougaard, Pietersen try each, M Steyn 2 cons, 3 pens, 1 d-g. England: Flood try, 3 cons, 2 pens Youngs 2 tries
South Africa: Lambie (Pienaar 57); Pietersen, De Villiers (capt), F Steyn, Habana (Basson 57); M Steyn, Hougaard; Mtawarira, B du Plessis (Strauss 60), J du Plessis (W Kruger 60), Etzebeth, J Kruger (Van der Merwe 62), Coetzee, Alberts (Daniel 52), Spies
England: Foden; Ashton, Joseph (Goode 77), Tuilagi, Strettle (Farrell 60); Flood, Youngs (Dickson 75); Marler (Corbisiero 57), Hartley (Mears 76), Cole, Botha (Palmer h-t), Parling, Johnson, Robshaw (capt), Morgan (Waldrom 47)
Referee: A Rolland (Irl)
Sunday Indo Sport