England 13-27 South Africa
This was a comprehensive pasting for England at the hands of the world champions, raising a ton of questions for Owen Farrell’s men to answer at the close of an Autumn Nations Series in which they have beaten only Japan, drawn with New Zealand and lost to Argentina and South Africa, all at Twickenham.
In a very tough watch for the home supporters, the Springboks battered the red rose in the scrum, and added to a creeping concern that this England team, not far short of full strength on the injury front, is of a middling quality with middling coaches.
If this is all about trying combinations and styles and building to a World Cup, as England’s head coach Eddie Jones insists, there are nine Tests left to go in the next eight months, including the Six Nations, to make a significant step up.
South Africa had lost their last three matches with England here, since 2014, as well as winning the 2019 World Cup final between the teams.
But the Boks’ current form was decent, through narrow losses away to the world’s top-ranked teams, Ireland and France, in this autumn series, and a big win in Italy.
And the pre-match words of head coach Jacques Nienaber came true.
When Nienaber was not ducking questions about his director of rugby Rassie Erasmus’ singular social-media activity, he had pleaded for greater appreciation to be given to the Boks’ back three.
And anyone who did not already have an appreciation for Kurt-Lee Arendse was obliged to applaud the try in 32 minutes that put a gap between the teams after the initial to-ing and fro-ing of penalty kicks.
Marcus Smith launched a punt to land just outside the South Arrica 22, but Damian Willemse, his opposite number at fly-half, accepted it as an invitation to attack and feed Willie le Roux inside him as Jack van Poortvliet put in a tackle.
Le Roux sped away, up the right, and sent Arendse gliding on a sweet arc outside the covering Smith for a wonderful seventh try in seven Tests.
England had been caught short of numbers as they followed Smith’s original kick. And for South Africa it was a case of no Cheslin Kolbe, no problem, with the best known of their scintillating wings among six players unavailable for this Test outside the November international window.
England had done well to hold up a South Africa line-out drive earlier in the first half but they were racking up penalties under pressure, in at the side of mauls and so on.
They also had the rare sight of Owen Farrell’s kicking radar off-beam, with two penalties from the captain clumped wide in front of the posts, as South Africa reached half-time 14-3 up.
England, who had spent a devastatingly meagre six seconds in the visitors’ 22 up to the break, launched a mini bomb squad from the resumption, with Ellis Genge, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Will Stuart brought on as a fresh front row, and Jack Nowell replacing Tommy Freeman.
But the next score was a second drop goal by Willemse, for 17-3, followed by a costly and crass penalty conceded by England’s big lock Jonny Hill, for hauling Faf de Klerk away from a ruck.
That was compounded immediately by a yellow card to Hill’s Sale club-mate Tom Curry, with England on a warning from referee Angus Gardner for repeat offending.
South Africa swiftly added their second try, rumbled over by Eben Etzebeth at the posts and converted by De Klerk.
England received a much-needed leg up when replacement South Africa prop Thomas du Toit was shown a red card for driving into the head of Cowan-Dickie on 60 minutes. At the same time, Henry Slade came on for Smith, who had earlier twisted an ankle.
Trailing by 21 points, England needed a comeback on an even greater scale than the 19 they pulled back in the last 10 minutes of the draw with the All Blacks a week ago.
There was a brief lift of a try for Slade after a line break by Farrell, but no repeat result, as two England line-outs on the Bok line were stolen by a team who glory in backs-to-the-wall defence.