South Africa were left to rue missed opportunities as England repressed a difficult first-half to kickstart their Autumn Internationals campaign with a 12-11 win.
Owen Farrell kicked nine points, but his huge tackle – ruled legal by referee Angus Gardner – with the clock dead will be debated endlessly in the coming days. Farrell smashed Andre Esterhuizen in the closing stages with a hit that looked suspiciously lacking in wrapped arms.
The Springboks dominated much of the opening stanza, but failed to convert pressure into points as hooker Malcolm Marx struggled to gain control of the line-out, overthrowing on four separate occasions.
England’s indiscipline has been a worry for Eddie Jones throughout his spell in charge, even before his side’s results turned sour. Things looked to be no different in the early exchanges: five penalties conceded in the opening 20 minutes, three of them through Maro Itoje, who was yellow-carded for his professional foul.
Though Jones’ selection came under heavy scrutiny in the week, his decision to opt for Elliot Daly over trusted servant Mike Brown at full-back was scarcely analysed, but after Daly’s start to the game, Jones was left to rue his call.
Daly – traditionally an outside centre – failed to take his first three high-balls, the last of which creating heavy Springbok pressure, resulting in Itoje’s red card.
And for all the talk of a lightweight England pack struggling to cope with South Africa’s monsters, it was the Springbok backs who looked threatening.
While Jones dropped George Ford – and in the process went away from the back-line with two playmakers which served him so well at the beginning of his reign – Rassie Erasmus opted for Damian Willemse at full-back in Willie le Roux’s absence.
Handre Pollard and Willemse, who grew up playing fly-half, were controlling the game masterfully, while inside centre Damian de Allende looked troublesome with ball in hand.
South Africa’s first try – a well-worked move setting up Sbu Nkosi in the corner – came after surge after surge of Springbok pressure, but Owen Farrell’s fast response with the boot meant England’s half-time deficit was only two points.
It’s the mark of a good team to hang in there when the going gets tough, and while South Africa were dominant in the first half, after the interval England were a changed team. Owen Farrell was controlling the game as he hadn’t been able to, the forwards were able to gain metres in the carry, while the disciplinary issues had dwindled.
As the game broke, England took the lead for the first time, but as they did so, South Africa’s physicality went up a notch. Though Eben Etzebeth was forced from the field through injury, Pieter Steph du Toit, Duane Vermeulen and RG Snyman were taking any opportunity to smash England backwards.
In bringing his substitutes onto the pitch, Jones risked losing the momentum his side had fought so hard to find, but they turned out to be inspired. Zach Mercer looked at home on the Test stage, while George Ford’s introduction added some much-needed poise and control to England’s play.
Pollard did kick South Africa back into the lead, but Farrell battered the ball between the posts after 72 minutes to give England a welcome victory, though they would fight hard in the closing stages after Pollard missed his second kick of the day.
South Africa had numerous opportunities to win the game, especially in the first-half, and Rassie Erasmus will rue Malcolm Marx’s missed throws.
With the visit of World Champions New Zealand next week, Eddie Jones’ quest to reignite England’s World Cup hopes looks no easier, but this victory shows commendable spirit and is a vital step on the way.