There was a time when any sort of victory over South Africa would have been a cause of wild celebration for England. A decade and 12 matches without a win tends to do that.
And so almost the most impressive aspect of this 37-21 victory was not the scoreline, or the four fine tries, or the slaying of the green-shirted bogeymen with the size – if not the skill – of their illustrious forebears, but the collective attitude at the end: this was not enough, we must do more.
Expectations can both make and break a coach. When Stuart Lancaster’s regime ended a year ago it was because his side had built up great optimism over four seasons of hard work but never actually improved. Four second places in the Six Nations, an ignominious exit at the group stage of a World Cup they both hosted and hoped to win.
England’s supporters now both expect and believe in a manner not seen since the crescendo of Sir Clive Woodward’s regime in 2003. A Grand Slam in spring, a whitewash of the Wallabies in summer; autumn arriving with more history being made.
Ten wins on the bounce now for Eddie Jones, and yet with every game a little more promise shows. No England coach has ever started like this; only two South Africans, Kitch Christie and Nick Mallett, have ever begun an international job with a perfect 10.
There are still imperfections in Jones’ team. Shipping 21 points at home is seldom a good look, not least when you have conceded a cumulative 75 in your previous three matches and then temporarily added another defence specialist to your coaching staff. Six penalties were conceded in the first 20 minutes, at least two of them daft.
More significant than those numbers is that Jones is his own side’s most probing critic (“We’re nowhere near good enough yet,” he said, matter-of-factly, afterwards. “I give us six out of 10”). Those improvements, if his recent track record is anything to go by, will surely come.
This was not an unfamiliar England team in its personnel. Seven of the eight in the pack started the corresponding fixture under Lancaster two winters ago. Four of the backs – George Ford, Owen Farrell, Jonny May and Marland Yarde – were handed their debuts by Lancaster; another, full-back Mike Brown, was brought in from the international boondocks by the same coach.
It is still becoming unrecognisable. Of Saturday’s starting XV only Yarde has yet to look a better player under the wise old Australian’s tutelage, and that may yet come.
Ben Youngs was outstanding, gauging his game perfectly to the wet conditions and early Springbok assault, box-kicking beautifully, sniping when the cracks opened around the fringes, finding the man outside him and the pass to match when those breaks set him free.
Jones joked afterwards of being able to see the scrum-half’s cheekbones for the first time, testament to the gruelling fitness targets each player has been set, but it was Youngs’ clean heels that the visitors were most sick of by the end, blind-side flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit so flummoxed by his constantly moving target that he was not only duped by one outrageous dummy but then fell for the same trick minutes later with the same try-scoring result.
Chris Robshaw, the inadvertent epitome of Lancaster’s well-meaning but never world-beating teams, is in a position that fits and form that for him is unparalleled. May finished his try with a pinned-back-ears dash for the corner when two years ago he would sometimes still come back to safety inside. Tom Wood, ditched by Jones as “average” at the start of his reign, marked his return with excellence.
Across the park it is the same story: Billy Vunipola, also sharper of cheekbone, inexhaustible in his appetite for ball-carrying where once he was tired and all too happy to sate his hunger; his elder brother Mako faster of foot and thought; Ford and Farrell, the old friends, a partnership at 10 and 12 that under Lancaster looked a stop-gap and is now the go-to.
There will be sterner tests from fresher teams. The Springboks have now lost five of their past six, weakened both by retirements and injury (they have lost seven key men from their march to the World Cup semi-finals here a year ago), debilitated further by the international game’s financial imbalances.
It is not good for the sport to see one of its great powers emasculated like this, and it is not hard to find sympathy for coach Allister Coetzee, powerless as so many of his nation’s experienced and promising talents are sucked away by the salaries of the big northern hemisphere clubs, forced to draw from a domestic structure that is struggling to attract spectators and work through the complications of the current quota ambitions.
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|12 November||Beat South Africa 37-21a|
Yet neither has Jones had it all his own way. Ten of the squad that pulled off that first unbeaten series down under were missing this week through injury, the outstanding individual talent in the English game, Maro Itoje, the most notable of those absentees.
And just as he has found a blend on the pitch that works, so his players on Saturday found answers – to the soggy conditions, to South Africa’s spirited start, to the exact blend of pragmatism and adventure required on afternoons like this.
“My job is to make myself redundant,” the coach said afterwards, in reference to his players’ problem-solving skills.
“We’re starting to see more ambition from the players to be the best in the world, but we’ve got to do better. I’ll be more pleased when we play better against Fiji next week.”
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