England the epitome of resilience as fight club defuse bomb squad
It was the rugby weekend’s biggest question: Could the England fight club defuse the Springboks bomb squad? The hosts were the team that had gone for the six/two forwards/backs bench split in contrast to the South Africans, who had modelled this configuration to great success at the 2019 World Cup before largely limiting themselves to five sub forwards for the majority of the Jacques Nienaber era.
How the bash-bash would unfold was a conundrum bursting with anticipation and what followed was a tremendous denouement for the Autumn Nations Series, an epic contest playing out right to the final whistle which eventually sounded to leave England exhausted but marvellous victors on a 27-26 scoreline despite an excruciating 18-8 penalty count going against them in favour of the Springboks.
You sensed it would be epic for the moment you stepped out at Twickenham rail station on a cold, grey morning. With the Whitton Road teeming with fans from as early as three-and-a-half hours before kick-off, the loudspeaker sales pitch of one stall-holder selling something other boerewors and burgers perfectly captured the backdrop to this blockbuster occasion: “Get you official reflink to hear everything the referee has to say,” he boomed. “Rassie just bought one. He is in the pub down the road.”
The spectacular banning of Erasmus from all rugby for two months and from matchdays until the end of next September ignited the heated narrative to a heavyweight November series finale where the fire was only added to by England implying that the South Africans reckoned their scrum was weak.
Eddie Jones had a blast over this at his team announcement briefing on Thursday and that spray was further fuelled by his assistant Richard Cockerill on the eve of the match. The evidence that the Springboks has been talking so disparagingly wasn’t obvious, the consensus instead being that this was a hot air ploy motivationally designed to gee up an England pack containing five of the same starters from the World Cup final, two rookie front-rowers in Bevan Rodd and Jamie Blamire and the still-apprentice-serving Jonny Hill at lock.
"The last time we played South Africa I was in the student bar I think"
— Autumn Nations Series (@autumnnations) November 20, 2021
Eventually, when all the pop music on the stadium PA tired itself out, when the beery crowd of 81,623 packed into the gallery and when the multitude of warm-up tackle bags were stored away we finally started getting some answers as to who would ultimately bag the meaty bragging rights and swagger away into the shivery November evening giddy with the sort of warmth that only a seismic Test match win can generate.
England will now lap up that feeling for weeks and months to come. They galloped clear early doors and led for 57 minutes before the Springboks hunted them down, but they then inspiringly went toe to toe in a compelling finish that featured yellow cards, tries for each team and niggly incidents galore.
In the end, the relief was that referee Andrew Brace wasn’t left as the villain of the piece, England squeezing out every last drop to edge a marvellous advertisement for cross-hemisphere Test rugby.
The partisan crowd milked the three-tries-to-one success that could have tipped against them had Handre Pollard not suffered a dose of the yips early in the second half, kicking wide two penalties that looked well within his range following a first-half where he was perfect off the tee with his four-out-of-four return keeping the Springboks alive after a nightmare opening.
England dominated them at the start, scoring punch-the-air tries through Manu Tuilagi and Freddie Steward, making hay at the scrum and generally looking like they would add to their 17-6 advantage 24 minutes in.
Test rugby, though, can be a strange beast with its momentum shifts and with referee Brace frequently applying his beady eye to Jones’ players, the situation unfolded whereby the Springboks kicked their way back into contention and they eventually took a 64th-minute lead that would have arrived sooner had Pollard not been errant along with a missed Frans Steyn drop goal.
Their bomb squad had wrested firm control. Their entire front row was changed in the 44th-minute and with their scrum and maul dominating, only two try-saving Max Malins interventions kept England’s line intact.
Guts were central to how they survived, a dogged determination not to allow the Springboks pack and the constant referee’s whistle to terminally wound them. This resilience was then visible in another guise, the sweeping moment featuring Henry Slade’s brilliance that resulted in Raffi Quirke scoring less than a minute after South Africa had first hit the front.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 20, 2021
Even then England couldn’t breathe easy. Replacement Will Stuart was carded, allowing the Springboks to score eight points – including an unconverted Makazole Mapimpi try – in his absence to lead 26-24 with eight minutes left. Jones, though, has been adamant he is moulding a ‘New England’ ahead of the 2023 World Cup and the fantastic way they pulled off this heist with the clock against them will only accelerate their growth immeasurably.
It was fitting that surprise pick Joe Marchant had a pivotal role to play, rising high in the incident that restored numerical equality with Siya Kolisi carded and while England went on to fluff a pair of lineouts with Stuart back in the mix and England now a man up, they still had the pluck and the guile to win it with a penalty that was an apt reward for some selfless Smith bravery in going in where it hurt.
The only pity was that the banned Erasmus wasn’t there to see it happen live. His face would surely have been a picture that would have told a thousand stories. A thousand stories about the day that the embryonic England fight club defused the famed Springboks bomb squad.
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