Autumn Nations Series: Five takeaways from England v South Africa as classic Springboks performance shines light on English problems

James While
Damian Willemse and Jacques Nienaber

Following a 27-13 victory for South Africa over England in their Autumn Nations Series fixture, here’s our five takeaways from the match at Twickenham.

The top line

South Africa put in a classic display of Springbok basics, suffocating and powering over England and completely outplaying them as their team, shorn of seven or eight first choice players, muscled, hustled and thought their way to an impressive win.

This was a team that played as world champions, one tinkering with personnel, blooding young talent but never, ever forgetting their simplistic DNA of an unstoppable set-piece, domination at gainline and ownership of the scoreboard. With Faf de Klerk in impish form, Willie le Roux majestic with ball in hand and Franco Mostert absolutely huge as both a lock and a flank, the Boks delivered in every area of their game plan.

At the heart of their strategy was a near impregnable defence, led by the superb Damian de Allende and supported by Mostert and Siya Kolisi. For South Africa, this was a match where they learned a lot about the promise of their youngsters, particularly Kurt-Lee Arendse and Damian Willemse, who rose to the occasion with pace and intelligence, whilst in the pack Marvin Orie put in a memorable display in the set-piece, particularly in the driving maul defence.

It was a consummate display worthy of a world champion side and one that will ensure that the Springboks leave the Autumn Nations Series with a smile on their faces and confidence in their bones, but above all, with absolute clarity of the strengths and weaknesses of their rugby strategy.

Watershed

Moving into the World Cup year, England only have three problems they need to fix – they can’t attack, they can’t defend and they have no set-piece.

Let’s be absolutely honest about this, the English game is in crisis mode right now; Premiership clubs have gone bust, attendances are down and the national side ends 2022 with a dismal record of five wins, one draw and six defeats in the calendar year, a record marginally better than that of Italy. The Rugby Football Union have been accused of being asleep at the wheel by the Parliamentary Select Committee, and to compound matters, the Test match vehicle they’re driving is currently marooned without any form of momentum on the hard shoulder of rugby failure.

Today saw no green shoots of recovery – far from it, it was a devastating step backwards and one that stripped the paper off the cracks of mediocrity that last weekend’s late rally against the All Blacks covered over. England were destroyed at scrum time, taken apart in the line-out and schooled at the breakdown. Most concerningly, their appears to be a complete lack of clarity in game plan, an inability to understand and react to emotional ebbs and flows of game situation and a complete lack of basic rugby skillsets.

The only hope that England have is that by recognising their deficiencies, they can act – and that means spending the next nine matches recalibrating selection, strategy and delivery. It’s a massive task, but with remarkable symmetry, four years ago the Springboks faced precisely the same challenge yet went on to win a Rugby World Cup.

Deadwood

When a side is so comprehensively yet predictably pulled apart up front, there has to be a reaction. Post match, Eddie Jones placed all of his disquiet and frustration in the direction of the scrummage, and pointed out that, as the French often observe, ‘no scrum is no life’. However, to place everything at the front-row is disingenuous. In the back-row, Alex Coles haemorrhaged four penalties and could have been pinged for three more had Angus Gardner not played the advantage. Billy Vunipola, a man who has lived off past glories for years, failed to dent anything other than his own reputation and Jonny Hill, who had a lively game all round, showed flashes of absolute dull stupidity on several occasions.

In the backline, dropping first phase passes at first or second receiver is simply not acceptable and on several occasions, like an out of form batsman with hard hands, the anxiety of the England midfield to change the game up just ended with embarrassing knock-ons and lost possession. The axis of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell isn’t working – the communication of two styles of pivot play is conflicting and England do not know whether they’re an attritional power side or a running speed team.

With nine Tests left, selection is now Jones’ biggest headache – but one that can only be solved with dare and experimentation. That means picking on form, sticking to one style of play and creating a method of scoring that plays to the strengths of rugby in the Premiership over and above any other preconception that England or Jones may have.

Bok power

The dismantling of the English scrum and aerial threat was the cornerstone of the Springbok win. From the very first moment of the match, Frans Malherbe started his demolition job on Mako Vunipola, a project finished off by the Bok ‘Bomb Squad’ in fine style as Steven Kitshoff strode on to school Will Stuart. Jones remarked that he was less than happy with Gardner’s interpretation of the scrummage, but when South Africa are painting a set-piece picture of Mona Lisa proportions and England are struggling to emulsion a brick wall, what else can you expect of the officials?

But to put this win down purely to scrum power is doing the Bok backline a disservice – at 15 Le Roux was absolutely magnificent, drawing men, popping killer passes around the back of would be tacklers and cleaning up in the aerial battle. The youngsters Willemse and Arendse were absolutely electric with footwork and brilliant in realising opportunity, showing pace to burn and an ability to handle and finish under pressure. The calm interplay of Arendse and De Klerk to finish off a move started in the their own 22 under defensive kick pressure and finished in a blink of an eye 80 metres at the other end of the pitch was a delight and in every aspect, South Africa’s ability to deliver under pressure was light years ahead of England.

The future

Jacques Nienaber will travel back to South Africa with his reputation and his player stocks enhanced. He might only have two from two, losing in close battles against the world numbers one and two in Ireland and France, but given the Bok injury/unavailability list and the form of those two opponents, he’ll be comfortable with his return on the player investment he has made on this tour. He has increased his back five stocks in the pack, seen Willemse and Arendse develop and also had the chance to put the likes of Orie, Evan Roos and Jaden Hendrikse under real Test match pressure and seen them respond.

On the flip side, Jones has little to take out of this tour. His plans, his thinking and his selections have been ripped apart and the only saving grace he has is that he’s got a completely clean sheet of paper in which to move forward into a crucial Six Nations campaign.

He needs to seek clarity of availability of French players, particularly those of the calibre of Zach Mercer. Those that he has been loyal to need deep scrutiny – is the Test match experience of a 40% win rate in 2022 a foundation to build upon or is it a base that’s likely to crumble into the sand? In 2005, Michael Vaughan dropped some experienced English cricketers for the Ashes series because he believed their mental scarring at the hands of the Aussies was so deep that it could never fully heal, and this England side are arguably in a similar position.

Make no mistake about it – today saw seven years of goodwill from the English Rugby public to Jones and his team evaporate. It’s no longer time for soundbites, it’s time for performances and unless that happens in the Six Nations, many established figures in English Rugby will need to consider their positions.

It really is that bad.

READ MORE: Autumn Nations Series: Springboks muscle past disappointing England at Twickenham