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Rugby | Springboks

Eddie Jones © Gallo Images

Both teams learned from great series

In looking back at the just completed three match series between the Springboks and England, perhaps it is a quote from the visiting coach Eddie Jones that best sums it up.

“I thought it was a great rugby series and it was good for the healthiness of test rugby. The Boks are a revitalised team and they are well coached. They were very good in the first two tests and deserved to win the series,” said the England mentor.

Even though he lost, Jones was particularly enthused after the first test, which was the stand-out game of the series and without which perhaps the enthusiasm would be misplaced. For there were lots of mistakes made in Bloemfontein a week later, and the Newlands match was…well wet weather games are seldom memorable and England won it with a no-risk approach.

But Jones’ high billing for the series was not misplaced in terms of what both teams should have got from it, and perhaps it was right that England did get the win in the last match as a 2-1 series result was a more accurate reflection of how it went than a whitewash would have been. Although the Boks were better, the first game was fairly even, with the contest being directed by waves of momentum from either side, and England were as comprehensively better than the Boks at Newlands as the Boks were better than them in Bloemfontein.


“We won today because we handled the big moments better than we did in the first two tests,” was another Jones quote that couldn’t be argued against.

One of the things he would have learned from the series is that if he needs a captaincy replacement for Dylan Hartley, it shouldn’t be Owen Farrell. The wrong onfield calls were made in Johannesburg, and it was when Farrell spat the dummy when things got heated in the second that England surrendered the initiative and after that there was only really one team on the field.

Farrell was more composed at Newlands but then it was a game in conditions that suited England, and the Boks, just as England had in the two previous games, were conspiring against themselves.


That England were able to win the last game following the no-frills template that we’ve seen them follow in their more successful years, such as when they dominated the Five Nations in the early 1990s and then when they won the World Cup in 2003, should not detract from the fact that there were unmistakeable signs of game growth before that.

The Boks might have got it wrong in the early minutes at Emirates Airlines Park defensively but England were excellent with their attacking game in that period and it was easy to agree with their players who a week later in Umhlanga Rocks were describing the first quarter as the best attacking rugby they had produced under Jones.

The selection of Mike Brown on the wing remains a subject of debate but Jonny May was the star for England in this series. He has plenty of pace to burn, as he showed in scoring tries in every test match. It looked for all money that the ball was heading over the dead ball line when Danny Cipriani launched the kick that was to produce the try that eventually made sure of the Newlands result, and his solo effort in the closing minutes in Johannesburg should challenge for the international try of the year award if there is one.


Of course it is not just out of the positives that you learn, and apart from the onfield leadership, England should have been left with clearly identifiable work-on points following their failure to cope with the pressure applied by the Boks when momentum was swung the home team’s way in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein. Perhaps they already have started their learning, for conceding only six penalties in Cape Town was a big step forward from where they had been the previous weeks.

The key to that may have been the way the England forwards fronted at Newlands in comparison to two quite lightweight efforts in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein. The Boks suffered for not having the comfortable forward platform in Cape Town that they’d had before.


The Boks emerged from the series with some negatives that require working on, but they will feel there were more positives. The highlight was the composure they showed in coming back from big deficits in two consecutive matches, and the sheer power and brutal force of their forward pack once they got momentum. There has also been a noticeable upliftment of core skills, with long passes no longer looking the 50/50 options they used to shape as.

Their kicking game went awry in the Newlands wet and it would not have escaped Bok coach Rassie Erasmus that the tally from the four tests played so far in his tenure, which includes the jaunt to Washington to play Wales, reads: Wet weather tests - Boks 0 Opposition 2.

Of course, he was experimenting with his selections in both of those games, which is in itself a positive - not many of his predecessors would have been prepared to test the depth to the extent that Erasmus has done. There have been 17 new players blooded since the beginning of June, some of them have come off, some of them haven’t, but the bottom line is that Erasmus knows where he stands.


The growth of the playing pool has been achieved while also invigorating the transformation drive, and being able to do that and beat England at the same time so early in his reign as coach does deliver a telling response to the naysayers who argue it isn’t possible.


The Boks achieved their series win with direct rugby, and Jones would tell you they won the first two tests because they kicked more. The Australian may have even been the victim of his own double bluff at Emirates Airlines Park, where he stunned the Boks by running at them with a team that looked like it had been selected around a kicking template, but then failed to make the adjustment later.

England were very effective when they slowed everything down at Newlands, but they will return to England feeling they are developing the ability to play a different game should they have to. Likewise the Boks, while their win in the second test was built around suffocatingly accurate kick and chase, showed that they can run the ball effectively and have dangerous wings, as was shown at stages of the Johannesburg game and in Bloemfontein.


The two England based players Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux provided the solution for two areas that were a concern for the Boks going into the series, though in the latter case it was more experience that gave Le Roux the edge over the talented and promising Warrick Gelant. The Boks have two fine fullbacks to call on, and going forward there is the possibility Damian Willemse can play there too.

Talking of Willemse, back-up flyhalf was the one question mark that remains in place after Elton Jantjies played in two tests and failed to deliver, and it was noticeable how much Erasmus mentioned him at the post-match press conference. Bet good money on him being involved in the Championship should he be over the injury that prevented him from playing a full role at the recent Junior World Championship.

An interesting ongoing selection focus could be the midfield. Lukhanyo Am was solid in his first two tests but Jesse Kriel does bring X-factor and may have been unfortunate that his two starts were both in wet weather games. Likewise, Andre Esterhuizen might relish the chance of playing more outside Handre Pollard, who is more of a gainline player than Elton Jantjies, and thus brings the inside centre more into the game.

Erasmus’ decision to blood Embrose Papier in wet weather game, for which he is patently not suited, was a bit odd. If he was going to experiment with scrumhalves, maybe Newlands was an opportunity for Ivan van Zyl, who is the best wet weather No 9 in the Bok group.


The biggest concern for Erasmus heading into the Championship is the inaccuracy at the breakdown that blighted the Bok performance in the last test of the series, and the fact that Duane Vermeulen won’t be a part of it. Vermeulen was the glue for the Boks in their two wins and he was a massive help to Kolisi in his first series as captain.

With Erasmus saying that Kolisi needs a rest, and he is not wrong about that, the captaincy could change for the Championship if Warren Whiteley is fit. But the positive is that Erasmus does have options, and he has gone through what you could describe as a fact finding mission in his first active month as coach with a new team that has shown signs of great promise.


“I think the Boks are World Cup contenders. But I would have said that six months ago just because there are so many really good players here. There is incredible rugby depth in this country, and even if there are a lot of good players overseas, there are a lot of guys with real ability left here too.

“There is a big difference in the Boks now compared to six months ago. They work much harder off the ball, they have an incredibly strong maul, and then when the opportunity comes to spread the ball wide they are dangerous and Willie le Roux makes good decision. They have played some really good games in this series if you consider where they were and they will only get stronger.”


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