Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: England's 'weird' defeat to South Africa and the weekend Tests
Last Updated: 11/06/18 2:44pm
Stuart Barnes discusses England's defeat to South Africa in Saturday's "weird" tour opener and looks at the good and bad from Ellis Park, as well as the other talking points from the weekend Tests.
1. Four straight Test matches, five games on the run; England continue to lose in a game where they played arguably some of their best attacking rugby. I said before this tour started that performance was as important as results so let's look at the positives in the first 20 minutes.
George Ford played it flat and passed fantastically. Owen Farrell and Henry Slade looked slick on the front foot. The result was an eye-catching effort from Jonny May with ball in hand. The midfield three created for the wide men. That was excellent.
2. The tactical kicking was not; neither as accurate as South Africa's nor as varied as it should have been given the array of established kickers on the field. England must sort this aspect of their game out if they are to pressurise the inexperienced Springbok wingers. Also, the line speed in defence was non-existent at times as Willie le Roux was allowed the freedom of Ellis Park to weave his spells.
3. And how well did the three 'overseas' players perform for the Springboks? Duane Vermeulen was the best back-row forward on the field, while Sale's Faf de Klerk was masterful as man of the match from scrum-half. He produced a pace which England could not live with; this was partly behind the high penalty count.
4. The selection of De Klerk, in particular, was a victory for pragmatism on the part of Rassie Erasmus. Only players with 30 or more caps are allowed to play overseas if they wish to continue as a Springbok. The blonde scrum-half now has a tally of 11.
He was officially unavailable to Erasmus. But the new manager argued the Springboks lacked a scrum-half of sufficient quality and pleaded the case for the exception. It is not too fanciful to say that the result turned on this off-field decision. Something for England, Ireland and Wales to think about.
5. The match itself was one of the weirdest I can recall. There was little in the way of pattern, bar the first 20 minutes. Both sides produced a rare old mix of the good and bad.
South Africa needed that win, what with a first black captain in 127 years. Defeat would have impacted on the crowd and interest in Bloemfontein. As it is, captain Siya Kolisi and his team have given South Africa a reason to stay with the rugby as the football World Cup kicks into action.
6. When you are on a winning run you get good habits. You win games despite not playing well. The flip side, the losing habit, means you can lose despite not playing badly. It isn't too fanciful to think that England would have had the belief and composure to win this Test had they come off the back of a few wins.
As Owen Farrell said post-match, the team needs to believe, deep down, not just empty words. It can be easier said than done when you are staring at a sixth straight defeat. England need to make a few changes in personnel and reset the mind before Bloemfontein. South Africa are not world-beaters. Victory is eminently possible.
7. Nor, it seems, are Ireland world-beaters. The best team in Europe were beaten by an Australian team that eclipsed the Grand Slam champions at their own game. The Irish back row, so strong in the European season, had their hands full with David Pocock back alongside Michael Hooper.
Behind the scrum, Kurtley Beale played another fine game as Australia kept the ball for long periods, a la Ireland, and controlled the match. This Test lacked the tries of Ellis Park but was higher on the intensity at contact. It was an impressive start and an important win for the Wallabies en route to the World Cup.
8. Important because Ireland will be better next week. Johnny Sexton will start, one presumes, along with Ireland's leading pair of props. Joe Schmidt ran the risk of defeat by weakening his team, but Test-match rugby, in the era of the World Cup, is as much about planning for the global extravaganza as winning every game.
Maybe England lost their way, the longer the winning run. Ireland's is over and they can get back to producing the level of performance required to level the series. It would be a surprise were the game in Melbourne anything but a tight one.
9. Nothing tight, however, about the game in New Zealand. France were overwhelmed when the All Blacks went through the gears in the second half, but the talking point was the officiating of Luke Pearce. Let's just say an awful lot went the way of New Zealand in that second half.
Are referees biased in New Zealand's favour? No, of course they are not. But are they subconsciously influenced by the form-lines and aura of the All Blacks at home? That is an altogether different question with, I think, a different answer.
10. I only caught the last few minutes of Wales' win in Argentina so I'll wait until I watch the game back in Britain before making much of a comment. I will say this; it was a good win for a weakened Wales side against an Argentina team boosted by excellent Super Rugby form in the recent weeks.
With many of their best players resting up at home and some good talent coming quickly through, you can add Wales to any list of dark-horse contenders for the World Cup. Right now they deserve to be a shorter price than England for the tournament. We'll revisit that comment after Bloemfontein.
Will England bounce back in the second Test? Tune into Sky Sports Action and Main Event from 3pm on Saturday June 16 to follow the Rose on England's journey to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.