Player Ratings: Battered and bruised
OPINION: A deja vu scenario, but with quite a damaging outcome for England on this occasion. Seven days earlier, they were 6-25 down to the All Blacks with eight minutes remaining when they launched a game-levelling three-try comeback with the opposition a yellow card man down.
Here, the deficit was 6-27 with 20 minutes remaining when Springboks sub Thomas du Toit was rightly red-carded for his shoulder horribly meeting the head of fellow replacement Luke Cowan-Dickie, but there was no miraculous revival. Marcus Smith was soon to exit injured and bar a Henry Slade converted try, that was the height of this weekend’s England riposte in a brutal 13-27 loss.
For the deeply wounded England, it will be marked down as a disaster. They badly needed a win so that they could sign off on this November series – and on the entire 2022 calendar year – in the black. They had come into the fixture with only a 50 per cent success rate: eleven games played, five won, five lost and one drawn. Not the type of dominance designed to have people believing they will be world champions in eleven months’ time.
A curiosity was how the more things supposedly change for England under Eddie Jones, the more things actually stay the same as this latest rejigged XV contained five Saracens players, three of whom were out of favour this time last year but have since fought their way back in. It meant that the home side started with nine of the exact same team that had run out to begin the loss to the Springboks three years ago in the World Cup final.
Not that there was a wholesale South African evolution in the 36 months since Yokohama. They had eight of the very same world final starters on deck again here and once their fans had managed to negotiate the train congestion, the braai queues, and the latest tweets from the banned Rassie Erasmus, it was low-frills actions stations.
The first half-hour became the story of intense scrums, multiple penalty kicks despite the blustery wind, a whole heap of momentum-stopping collisions and far too many unnecessary water breaks. It left the scoreboard stuck at three-all, Owen Farrell one from three and Faf de Klerk one from two, before a Damien Willemse drop goal became the cue for South Africa to clinically counterattack.
There was England angst that Freddie Steward was perhaps obstructed Kurt-Lee Arendse as he chased down the ball-catching Willemse on the SA 22-metre line and there were also howls that a pass from le Roux was potentially forward, but the groans were immaterial as the 33rd-minute Arendse try stood and de Klerk tacked on a penalty on the blow of the half for a handsome 14-3 advantage.
For England, it was a ‘marginal improvement’ on last weekend, as they trailed the All Blacks 3-17 at the break and although Jones reacted by making four half-time changes, whipping off the front row and a winger, it soon all went to pot, Farrell’s penalty sandwiched by a second Willemse drop goal and a converted Eben Etzebeth try with Tom Curry on a yellow card.
A long-range de Klerk penalty followed for 6-27 before England were offered a 20-minute lifeline with du Toit sent packing. It wasn’t grasped though, 14 points the eventual margin of defeat due to Farrell and co being far too frantic in trying to exploit their man advantage and the final whistle was greeted with deserved boos from the home support for a withering, deflating performance. Here are the physically beaten-up England player ratings:
15. Freddie Steward – 5.5
Endured an uncharacteristic first half that featured a rare knock on under dropping ball and also a clearance kick out on the full. Had grounds for complaint after how the opening South African try ignited. Was better in the second half but remain way below his usual high standard.
14. Tommy Freeman – 4.5
A surprise inclusion for his third-ever Test start despite last weekend’s general lack of involvement by Jack Nowell, he too struggle for action, a 27th-minute knock on about the height of his very limited first half. Hooked at the break for Nowell.
13. Manu Tuilagi – 5
A picture of rude health this November in contrast to his frustrating pattern of injury, his 50th England cap wasn’t the memorable one he would have hoped for as he wasn’t much noticed. Needed a penalty-winning carry near his own line with time almost up to remind people he was still out there.
12. Owen Farrell – 6.5
Having given up the kicking duties last weekend with an ankle injury, he was back on the job here and it went terribly wrong in the opening period with two misses from three attempts. Also sent a one-handed tip-on to Tuilagi forward. Tried to lead the charge against 14 with Smith off injured, his break leading to the Slade try, but there was far too much to be done.
11. Jonny May – 4
Needed a much-improved performance and he didn’t get it as he was again a largely anonymous figure part from tidying up one chase to the dead ball line with Eben Etzebeth.
10. Marcus Smith – 5.5
Gave a Harlequins-esque flourish to transform last week’s 6-25 deficit into a draw and needed to do the same here with England two points worse off but he was gone injured on 61 minutes, unable to shake off the ankle role sustained earlier when tackled by Siya Kolisi. Sent up regular aerial bombs in the first half, but only one catching error resulted. Show loved skill scampering back to tidy on 28 minutes after a Makazole Mapimpi kick ahead, but he was stepped neatly by Arendse for the game-breaking try.
9. Jack van Poortvliet – 6
Selection here meant he started more games than Ben Youngs this November but he had it rough behind a pack constantly under the cosh. Gone on 67 minutes.
1. Mako Vunipola – 5
Was brilliantly defiant when used as a sub against the All Blacks, but he couldn’t supply the same energy here as a starter. Mixed effort at the scrum, a concession resulting in a de Klerk miss before a penalty back was missed by Farrell. Featured little elsewhere and was off at the break.
2. Jamie George – 5.5
Another upgraded from the bench to start on the basis of what he did last weekend, another who didn’t have the same joy shouldering that responsibility. There was one show of good leadership, asking the referee to clarify what was going on at the scrum against his team, but was otherwise of little influence.
3. Kyle Sinckler – 5.5
Trouble started when he didn’t take the hit at the first scrum and had it tough all the way through after that until swapped for Will Stuart at the break. Back for the last four minutes after his replacement was injured.
4. Maro Itoje – 7
Started with a whirlwind, an early rip, penalty-winning pressure at a restart and a wicked one-handed pass out the back showing he was up for this. Got more than he bargained for early in the second half when he nuisance leg-hold on Etzebeth – while Willemse dropped a goal – sparked an all-in. Won a turnover penalty that gave England hope after the red card but there were generally too many South African forwards watching over him.
5. Jonny Hill – 6.5
Underlined his importance to the current England set-up in being one of seven players to start all games, he began promisingly before getting overwhelmed despite his best efforts.
6. Alex Coles – 5.5
A big call stitching the Test rookie back into the mix after an all-sorts month when there was a start at lock, a run off the bench and then match day exclusion last weekend. His adventure here was curtailed after only 46 minutes, his penalty trouble the main talking point with an obvious neck roll on Evan Roos and then collapsing a maul with South Africa just metres out. His tackle count was high, mind.
7. Tom Curry – 7
The best of the English back rows, he was left with too much to do. Gave up the penalty that allowed de Klerk made it 3-14 and was then yellow carded after the break, his absence getting followed by a ten-point South African burst. Finished as his team’s tackler yet again, despite his ten-minute absence.
8. Billy Vunipola – 6
Accidently crashing into the referee off the back of an early scrum and alter giving Roos a shove with the ball in touch were some of his less notable contributions on a difficult evening when the traffic was ruck-hour like whenever he carried for hos 50-or-so metres. Off on 56 minutes for Sam Simmonds.
16. Luke Cowan-Dickie – 5.5
Having looked lethargic this month as a starter, it was no surprise to see him benched for this. Arrived after half-time and his big moment was being on the receiving end of the rec-carded du Toit charge. The question must be asked why didn’t he need to go for a HIA?
17. Ellis Genge – 6
Should have been furious he was axed from the XV as he has been one of the most improved players this past twelve months. Struggled to change the flow of the scrum but carried hard.
18. Will Stuart – 5.5
Last week’s two-try hero, there was no fairy tale on this occasion as he excited in pain with a worrying injury.
19. David Ribbans – 5.5
Sent on for Coles just six minutes after the break to play against his native country. Beaten at the jump on 61 after England had kicked the red card penalty to touch.
20. Sam Simmonds – 5
It’s said he struggles with the power game and it showed here when he was unable to free up Malcolm Marx over the ball.
21. Ben Youngs – 5
Credited with bringing a game-changing tempo to the closing exchanges versus the Kiwis, but couldn’t do likewise here.
22. Henry Slade – 7
Usually a regular starter, he has used this month’s repositioning as a bench player and he played excellently. Scored the lone England try on 72 minutes. Really needs to be considered as a starter.
23. Jack Nowell – 6.5
Paid the selection price for last weekend’s All Blacks encounter passing him, he played the full second half. Done for a holding-on penalty but he was encouraging in the carry. His team’s second-best sub after clubmate Slade.