Sunday 16 December 2018

Test series disaster compounds Jones' woe

South Africa 23 England 12

Eddie Jones. Photo: Reuters
Eddie Jones. Photo: Reuters

Robert Kitson

One hundred and 26 days have now elapsed since England last won a game of Test rugby. In terms of this series the countdown clock has already stopped ticking, South Africa having taken an unsurpassable 2-0 lead with just one left to play in Cape Town next Saturday. Five Test defeats in a row is the most relevant English statistic of all.

It is a grim sequence that Eddie Jones, his coaches and players, for all their hard work, seem increasingly unable to shake. Again they threw away an excellent start, losing momentum, discipline and, gradually, belief as the Springboks dished out a lesson in directness, execution and collective desire.

For all the dash of Jonny May and Elliot Daly, England continue to add up to less than the sum of their parts on and off the field. Looming job cuts have RFU staff fretting at home and all sorts of questions suddenly hover over the national team's progression towards next year's World Cup in Japan. Whatever magic dust Jones scattered earlier in his tenure has long since disappeared into the ether.

For the second week running they made an eye-catching start with two tries inside three minutes within the first quarter. For the second week running it all came crashing down. This time they gave away 13 penalties, having solemnly sworn to be squeaky clean.

England certainly should have known what was coming once they had again exploited acres of space in South Africa's wide channels to register early tries through Mike Brown and the roaming May.

From 12-0 down, the Springbok forwards took a firm grip and the sight of Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira, who had already led the home team out as the first black African to make 100 Test appearances, charging down the middle was merely one of numerous alarming first-half moments.

England's Kyle Sinckler, left, and Mako Vunipola tackle South Africa's Franco Mostert. Photo: Christiaan Kotze/AP Photo
England's Kyle Sinckler, left, and Mako Vunipola tackle South Africa's Franco Mostert. Photo: Christiaan Kotze/AP Photo

There would be no denying a fired-up home pack indefinitely and in Duane Vermeulen they had the perfect man to exploit any defensive fragility. The No 8 is tough to stop at full bore and he duly left Maro Itoje and Ben Youngs sprawled in his wake as he drove over the line to reignite the contest. All the while the game was simmering in other ways, with plenty of niggle.

By half-time England, for all their pre-match promises, had already conceded seven penalties. With a kicker like Handre Pollard around it was always going to be costly. Some obstruction at the lineout allowed the Springbok fly-half to drag his side back within two points before a 58-metre effort punished England's failure to release on the floor before the break.

There was still time for Bongi Mbonami to crash through a clearly struggling Billy Vunipola, leaving the English management little option but to replace their No 8 with Nathan Hughes for the second half.

If the visitors were hoping to exert a fresh measure of control they were instantly disappointed. A half-break from Ben Youngs led only to a loose pass and a concerted spell of South African pressure at the other end. England's scrum could not cope with a series of scrums which led to the month's least surprising penalty try and, after a potential first Test try for Brad Shields was ruled out by the TMO, England slowly ran out of ideas.

England's Billy Vunipola and South Africa's Duane Vermeulen, right, in action. Photo: Christiaan Kotze/AP Photo
England's Billy Vunipola and South Africa's Duane Vermeulen, right, in action. Photo: Christiaan Kotze/AP Photo

Even George Ford could not find a solution, getting caught in midfield and throwing a horrible pass to no one in particular which led to three more points for Pollard. It was the signal for Jones to call for Danny Cipriani, bizarrely still trying to prove himself at the age of 30. England did briefly spark into some semblance of life but the series, by now, was already gone.

Leaving aside the outcome, however, this tour should be remembered as a landmark one for black Springbok recognition. Following the hugely-significant appointment of Siya Kolisi as captain, Mtawarira's achievement was also enough to persuade the country's president Cyril Ramaphosa to attend the game on Youth Day, when South Africans remember those killed in the 1976 Soweto uprising. The divisive barriers of old are increasingly being torn down, along with England's once-lofty reputation.


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