Pride is restored in Port Elizabeth but now Lancaster must deliver the big scalp
21:00 GMT, 24 June 2012
The last time England conducted a review in the aftermath of a major overseas expedition, it led to a very public, very damaging frenzy of accusations and bloodletting. There will be no such fallout on this occasion.
While the post-World Cup inquest uncovered systemic failings which required urgent remedial action, the analysis of the trip to South Africa will be far less explosive.
Two Test defeats, two midweek victories and a gallant draw in the series finale on Saturday amounts to a middling return – a pass mark at a push, but an indication that a young, raw squad can emerge as a force in time.
Try time: Danny Care gives England a first-half lead in Port Elizabeth
Head coach Stuart Lancaster will take stock over the next week before naming revised EPS senior and Saxons squads, with the peace of mind that his employers are satisfied with progress.
RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie offered a measured endorsement on Sunday, saying: ‘We want to win every game and we look at what happened on that basis. That said, I think we achieved a lot. Yesterday’s performance was a committed one, to come here and get a draw.
‘History proves how difficult it is to come to this place and win, yet in all three games (Tests) we were competitive, committed and we will do better. We can look forward to the autumn series with confidence.’
That assessment allows Lancaster breathing space to shuffle his playing cards, then tackle the pressing issue of finalising a long-term coaching staff, with Andy Farrell’s return seemingly a formality. The head coach’s own appraisal of this tour and series was that it proved England have ‘strong foundations’.
It is crucial the solid but unspectacular returns here are viewed in such terms. This exercise has provided the team with what should be regarded as a starting position – a reference point for what lies ahead.
They have been given a stark indication of what is required to compete at the sharp end, not in the relative comfort of the European game but in contests with the southern elite.
Close call: Farrell (left) missed a late drop goal
What they have done is to establish a platform of do-or-die collective resolve – on a higher level to anything in the Six Nations.
Their spirit and courage is not in doubt, but so much more is required if England are to make sufficient progress to win two or three of their four autumn Tests – against Fiji, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand – as they should. Mike Catt paid Lancaster the compliment of saying that, in six months, he has fostered the sort of positive culture and environment it took Sir Clive Woodward three years to create. Well, that has to remain a constant in England’s make-up, one of those minimum standards.
Lancaster acknowledged that the finer points must be addressed for further development to take place, saying: ‘I’m pleased with the strength we have, with the players looking forward to playing for England. The next step is to get the detail right in terms of how we make the players world class, how we help them physically, tactically, mentally, and how they fine-tune that to enable them to win.’
James Haskell was one of those players who rose to the challenge of meeting the Springbok juggernaut head on in Saturday’s stalemate. Having given body and soul to a stirring defensive effort, the Otago Highlanders back-rower suggested England have become better at answering questions, but need to be more adept at asking them too.
‘Put the physical battle to one side, we’ve got to be a bit more creative in attack,’ he said. ‘We’ve got to test teams more. We’ve got the ability in terms of the physicality and the quality to finish, but it’s difficult when you keep attacking and they have 13 guys on their feet all the time.
Plenty to ponder: Lancaster (right) will name a revised EPS squad
SOUTH AFRICA: Aplon; Pietersen, J de Villiers (capt), Olivier, Habana;
Steyn, Hougaard (Pienaar 50min); Mtawarira, B du Plessis (Strauss 63),
J du Plessis (W Kruger 76); Etzebeth (Van der Merwe 76), J Kruger;
Coetzee, Spies, Potgieter (Kankowski 54).
Try: Pietersen. Pens: M Steyn 3.
ENGLAND – Try: Care. Pens: Flood, Farrell 2. Sin-bin: Hartley.
Referee: Steve Walsh (New Zealand).
‘We’ve got to be a bit smarter to tie
more guys in, then we can let the likes of (Chris) Ashton and Manu
(Tuilagi) run at holes instead of running at people.’
were again guilty of conceding possession far too readily with aimless
tactical kicking. While there has been much talk of ‘exit strategies’ on
this trip, it appeared an almost criminal offence to send the ball
straight back to South African runners, having expended so much energy
winning it. Sure, there is a need to secure attacking territory, but
there was a lack of balance and common sense. No matter how many times
in-field kicks served no positive purpose, Owen Farrell in particular
kept repeating the process.
have Jonathan Joseph at No 13 and for a second week in succession fail
to set him running into space was a waste of a promising asset. Only in
the latter stages, in an attempt to strike the telling blow, did the
visitors trust their carriers, keep hold of the ball and realise that
doing so was a bright idea.
Care’s try had given them a deserved advantage and with Morne Steyn
missing three of his six shots at goal, England had victory within their
grasp in front of a restless home crowd in the closing seconds, but
Farrell’s drop-goal attempt was horribly wayward.
While disappointed they hadn’t quite claimed a first win over the Boks since 2006, Lancaster and his players could take comfort from avoiding a series whitewash, which both Ireland and Wales did not manage.
The head coach is allowing one more year for the endless lessons to sink in before he expects England to be settled and building momentum, but in reality – with a World Cup seeding at stake – they must start passing Tests in November.