South Africa fail to turn clock back to Yokohama in England defeat

So much of the buildup this week recalled the events of 2 November 2019 in Yokohama. Back then, the Springbok pack scrummed England off the park, laying an indomitable foundation from which they controlled the game. When England’s backs got a sniff of the ball the South Africa defenders held the line like Spartans at Thermopylae.

For the first 20 minutes of Saturday’s contest the opposite was true. England’s outside backs regularly outmanoeuvred the Springbok rush defence, scoring tries in either corner by sucking in the peripheral wing. Kyle Sinckler, so cruelly injured in the opening exchanges of the World Cup final, helped win two penalties from the first two scrums. After taking a 14-3 lead, memories of Ellis Park 2018 and England’s 24-3 advantage came to mind.

However, that match finished with a 42-39 Springbok win. Ever since they have carved a reputation as a team that won’t go away. A strong bench helps, but there is an apocryphal notion that South Africans perform at their best when the odds are against them.

Matches against England in the self-aggrandising “Home of Rugby” hardly need any additional impetus, but the apparent World Rugby awards snub this week and the punishment of Rassie Erasmus meant there were a few scores to settle and not just against Eddie Jones’ charges. Now with an early deficit to overcome, those old Springbok virtues were needed.

Momentum shifted when Handré Pollard nailed a 50-metre penalty on the angle near the right touchline on 27 minutes. Three minutes later he squeezed another through the posts from the left. England would frequently visit South African territory, courtesy of a dominant kicking game, but they lacked the same cutting edge. The Boks scrum landed some blows of its own. Ox Nché flattened Bevan Rodd. Duane Vermeulen and Damian de Allende began to boss their channels. South Africa went into the half-time break behind by five points but well in the scrap.

After establishing themselves as the darlings of the rugby world two years ago, Siya Kolisi’s team have become a lightning rod for a lot of nasty rhetoric. Much of that is the result of a jingoistic cabal within the South African press corps and the teams’ frothing fanbase. There is also no denying legitimate concerns over one-eyed reports from afar. Scoff all you like, but barbs from the UK still sting.

In the second half, the Springbok scrum, restocked by a fresh front row four minutes in, gained the upper hand which also saw the maul grab the ascendancy. Eben Etzebeth, whose personal battle with Maro Itoje deserved its own highlight reel, was immense, marauding through holes and hammering English carriers. His two steals on defensive lineouts after Kolisi was sin-binned looked to be decisive acts of heroism.

That he would end up a loser on the night is the result of two breakdown penalties won by the home side – one within Marcus Smith’s range and the other inside their own 22 with the finish in sight.

For the second consecutive visit to London, South Africa lost by a single point. That will hurt, particularly given how well they stormed back into the fight. But legitimate questions will be asked about the way they began. That is now seven games and counting that they have been behind at half-time. Against this England team, who are unbeaten in the past 22 matches in which they have been ahead at half-time, this proved the difference.

It has been a strange season for the world champions. Last time they were here they left with a sense of optimism regarding what was to come. Erasmus had yet to devise the “Bomb Squad” tactic, the Chasing the Sun documentary had yet to yank tears from a million eyes, a glorious future lay in wait. Now they leave the UK with yet another reason to feel aggrieved and prove the doubters wrong.