England conquer South Africa, but Jones eyes New Zealand
Twickenham victory is first over Springboks for ten years, but there are even bigger targets on the horizon
England's rugby redemption under Australian coach Eddie Jones continued on Saturday as his team finally got the better of South Africa, laying to rest another ghost, as they ran out 37-21 winners at Twickenham.
"After ten years and 12 matches without a solitary victory against the bullying Springboks, Jones has produced an England team able to beat them without having to get out of third gear," notes Stuart Barnes in The Times. But what is telling is that he was less than pleased with the performance.
He gave his side an "overall pass mark" and it's clear that he and his team are now building for 2019 and have their eyes on New Zealand's crown.
"What we are seeing in this England team is the mirror of their charismatic head coach," says Barnes. "There is an ambition unseen since the days when Sir Clive Woodward used to rile the rest of the world."
Jeremy Guscott of the BBC agrees. "Jones never seems to be happy and keeps saying he wants England to be number one in the world. It won't be easy, and staying number one will be even more difficult than getting there in the first place. But there aren't many positions – the flankers, inside centre, both wings? – that aren't competitive and this is a very good England team in the making," he says.
Gavin Mairs of the Daily Telegraph concurs with Barnes that England never needed to get out of third gear at Twickenham and won because they were able to "break free from the arm-wrestle contest that South Africa hoped would throttle their opponents".
The wet weather could have counted against the home side, but the game was won thanks to "England's attacking variety, orchestrated superbly by Ben Youngs and George Ford", he says. "England's ruthlessness in their finishing – typified by the opportunist try by Courtney Lawes – despite playing for long periods without the ball, enabled them to take the game away from South Africa with relative ease."
They also look solid, says Robert Kitson of The Guardian, and they are ticking off the boxes one by one. "The ability to apply judicious pressure and be more clinical with ball in hand are increasingly consistent English traits, not a bad foundation for the day when Eddie Jones feels ready to concentrate more on their counterattacking game," he says. "For now they are simply intent on making life a challenge for all opponents at all times, regardless of the weather."
Can England end ten-year losing streak?
Ten long years. That's the length of time since England last beat South Africa in a rugby union international, the worst losing streak in the history of matches between the two nations. In that decade England have been humbled, humiliated and hammered, three times conceding over 40 points and on one occasion, a 2007 World Cup match, suffering the indignity of a 36-0 defeat.
The last time the two nations met was one of the closer results, the Springboks edging out England 31-28 at Twickenham in November 2014, but there's a sense of genuine belief among English supporters that tomorrow at the famous old stadium the losing streak will be ended.
Why? Two reasons. First, England are unbeaten in over a year. Since Eddie Jones replaced Stuart Lancaster as coach after the debacle of the 2015 World Cup, England have won nine matches on the bounce. That earned them in March their first Six Nations Grand Slam in 13 years as well as the satisfaction of whitewashing Australia Down Under in a summer three-Test series.
Allied to that impressive momentum is the fact their opponents are in crisis, a word that for once isn't journalistic hyperbole. South Africa are experiencing their worst run of results in a generation, having lost four of their last five matches. In the past 15 months they've suffered some historic failures, including their first home defeat to Ireland and, memorably, that stunning loss to Japan in the 2015 World Cup. But it's doubtful anything hurt the Springboks as much as last month's 57-15 thrashing by New Zealand, their record defeat in a home international.
The reasons for the decline of South Africa are myriad: a lack of talent in the current generation, outdated coaching methods, poor and self-interested administration, the effects of racial quotas and the weak rand luring some of the brightest young talent to French and English clubs.
Together they have reduced a once proud rugby nation to a squad lacking self-belief and structure, and once which last week only scrapped a 31-all draw against the invitational Barbarians side with two late tries.
England should win, particularly as Eddie Jones isn't a man to allow complacency to creep into his squads. It was he who masterminded Japan's stunning defeat of the Sprinboks 15 months ago, and since taking over the helm at England he's introduced a hard-nosed and no-nonsense approach that has toughened up a group of players who, under Lancaster, were treated like schoolboys.
Despite injuries to the forward trio of George Kruis, James Haskell and Maro Itoje, all hugely influential in the Grand Slam triumph, there is a rich seam of experience running through the starting XV. Dylan Hartley captains the squad after recovering from a back injury, while Northampton teammates Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood return to the team after losing their places last year. Making his first start will be the 24-year-old Wasps centre Elliot Daly, who is paired with the experienced Owen Farrell in the midfield.
The only area of contention is on the wings where, in the absence of the injured duo of Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson, Jones has opted for Marland Yarde and Jonny May ahead of the in-form Christian Wade and Semesa Rokoduguni. Between them Wade and Rokoduguni have scored nine league tries this season while Yarde and May have managed one.
But Jones is a man who backs himself and in Yarde and May - who scored a sensational try for England against New Zealand in - he sees players who are more complete footballers and better able to produce a game-breaking moment. "We can't wait to get back to Twickenham and make this a game to remember," said Jones in announcing his squad. "We want to change the history of results between England and South Africa. We’re not sprinting yet but we’re definitely walking in the right direction. We’re an ambitious team. We want to be the No1 team in the world. This game against South Africa is another step forward.”
England v South Africa, Saturday 2.30pm Sky Sports 1