England come up just short once again
England 15 South Africa 16When Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22 it appears he had English rugby in mind. How clever of him to foresee a 22 full of Springboks, all awaiting the biggest call of Chris Robshaw’s captaincy career? Should he, or should he not, opt for a game-defining catch and drive? The debate will rumble on, just as it visibly did on the field. In truth it was not Robshaw’s isolated decision which spared South Africa but the whole team’s recurring struggle to make correct decisions under pressure.
In all probability England would have lost regardless of the choice Robshaw made. Teams who lament their inability to sneak a last-gasp winning try conveniently forget their failure to settle the contest in the previous 79 minutes. At least England await the visit of New Zealand with less trepidation. The day their composure in adversity matches Saturday’s desire and intensity, they will be a genuine threat.
Frustratingly for Stuart Lancaster they are still contriving to lose games they could be winning. Four defeats and a draw in five outings against Southern Hemisphere opposition is nothing to boast about. It is harsh to castigate them for being useless when their two most recent meetings with the world’s second-best team have yielded a collective one-point margin and one of the more freakish tries seen on the old cabbage patch. How they fare against the All Blacks will be instructive.
The first priority will be to dust down Clive Woodward’s old TCUP mantra – Thinking Correctly Under Pressure – which helped England to World Cup glory in 2003.
You can be the best team in the world but if you make duff decisions when it matters you will struggle to realise your potential. In this case last week’s squandering of two kickable penalties against Australia was clearly racing through Robshaw’s mind when, fatally, he pointed to the posts with England trailing 16-12 and two and a half minutes left on the clock.
Die was cast
Owen Farrell clearly disagreed with his captain, a parish council meeting ensued and, 30 seconds later the skipper could be heard asking the referee, Nigel Owens, if he could change his mind. By then the die was cast.
Farrell kicked the three points but South Africa were in no rush to restart and Mouritz Botha fumbled the ball into touch when it did arrive. England’s on-field leaders are referred to by Lancaster as “generals”. When the crunch came, there were too many Corporal Joneses.
Those who would rip off Robshaw’s armband and blame him alone are missing the point. He had a good, gallant game. No, the truth is that England are being held back by collective hesitation and muddled thinking. Robshaw’s Catch-22 moment was merely a snapshot of it. His side talked about wanting to play with no fear, then bottled it. Did they want to win the game or were they just hoping South Africa would donate it to them? Glass half-full or half- empty?
If the horrid conditions made a lineout throw risky, who could say with confidence that slotting a 50-metre penalty kick through incessant rain was more realistic? What would New Zealand have done? They would not have kicked for goal.
England were more energetic than against Australia but their lineout was badly rumbled and South Africa had the two most effective forwards on the pitch in Eben Etzebeth and the willing Duane Vermeulen.
New Zealand will look at Ben Morgan, Joe Launchbury, Dan Cole and Geoff Parling and see forwards to be reckoned with.
Lancaster’s prescription may be along the lines of “same names, different outcome, please”. Had a wet ball not ricocheted its way to Willem Alberts, who scored the game’s only try to put South Africa 16-6 ahead, who knows what would have happened?
“If it wasn’t for a flukey try we would be having a different conversation,” said Chris Ashton, who had cause to regret not going hard for the line during England’s best second-half attack. To some extent international sport is about making your own luck. England are making progress but not in the column that matters.
South Africa are unbeaten in the last 11 Tests between the countries and England last beat New Zealand in 2003.
“I do think we’re close but the ultimate test comes next week,” said Lancaster. If his side are in the All Black 22 requiring a late try, you pray they will rediscover the courage of their convictions.