Owen Farrell’s relationship with referees became an issue when he led England in South Africa in the summer, hectoring rather than cajoling. Making him co-captain with the more persuasive Dylan Hartley yielded a dividend at the end of a match in which England led by a point despite being pummelled as rarely before in front of their open crowd.
South Africa, who at one point in the first half had enjoyed 78% of possession and 80% of territory, had blown two chances to steal a game they should have sealed in the opening half-an-hour; first Handré Pollard grazed the right-hand upright with a long-range kick from in front of the posts and then opted not to drop a goal as the Springboks attacked near England’s posts only for Farrell to dispossess Lood de Jager.
The countdown clock had long reached zero when the replacement South Africa centre André Esterhuizen put the ball under his right arm and set off on a run near halfway that summed up what had come from his side in the previous 80 minutes: head down, eyes focused on what was in front of him; don’t think, feel.
South Africa had sought shoulders rather than bodies all afternoon, stepping just before contact. Ben Te’o was making his first start since May and spent much of the match on the floor, undone by his opposite number, Damien de Allende, so when Esterhuizen came calling Farrell was going to stop him by any means.
The South African came to an abrupt halt as Farrell stood tall. The ball went loose and England kicked it dead and celebrated, only for the Australian referee, Angus Gardner, to review of the incident: height was not an issue, with contact made below Esterhuizen’s shoulders, but any use of an arm appeared to be inadvertent. A penalty would have been in Pollard’s range, just, but Gardner ruled the challenge was fair after asking the television match official, Olly Hodges, for replays.
When England were on a losing streak earlier in the year, it was a decision that would probably have gone against them. They merited their fortune given the injury problems that denuded their pack but the biggest break they had was their opponents. South Africa were big but played as if what was inside their heads had been removed before the kick-off. They ran straight and hard but showed little initiative.
In September they beat New Zealand in Wellington and they lost last month’s return in Pretoria in the dying minutes. Both displays were based on defence and feeding off mistakes but here their dominance reflected their shortcomings, opportunities knocked on and four attacking lineouts wasted by overthrows. The more ball they had, the more their limitations were exposed.
England stood firm, surviving the loss to the sin-bin of Maro Itoje after 15 minutes. Their defiance was summed up by the No 8 Mark Wilson, a flanker filling a position that was vacant because three players, led by Billy Vunipola, were injured. Wilson absorbed punishment rather than dispensing it and summed up his side, who provided the few moments of illumination in a game played largely with the lights off.
Eleven of the 26 forwards involved weighed more than 18st. All the 11 except the prop Harry Williams were South African but the visitors’ try came after they had shown a rare hint of subtlety. De Allende, who carried the ball 72 metres, the most in the match, made another surge Aphiwe Dyantyi came into the midfield from his wing. He flicked the ball for Warren Whiteley to draw Elliot Daly and give Sibusiso Nkosi room on the right wing to evade Te’o’s covering tackle.
Otherwise England had to stand firm, which they did after conceding five penalties in the opening 15 minutes as a new team revealed structural defects, blown in the lineout, maul and ruck. Pollard gave South Africa the lead with a penalty after seven minutes but when Jonny May and Henry Slade foiled Nkosi after Pollard’s cross-kick and Itoje was sent to the sin-bin for killing the ball near England’s line, Farrell kicked a penalty after Dyantyi made a hash of a routine Ben Youngs box-kick.
South Africa had been together for much of the previous five months but were surprisingly disjointed at times and after Nkosi’s try, Farrell’s second penalty took England into the interval just two points down. They went into a huddle before retreating to the dressing room, not so much wondering how they were still in the game but reckoning it was there to be won.
The second half did not produce a try but was more open. May came into the game, weaving out of his 22 after fielding a Pollard kick and linking with Jack Nowell and Youngs. Itoje and Farrell made clean breaks and, as England secured more possession, there was considerably greater variety to their play than to South Africa’s.
England took the lead after 50 minutes when De Allende played the ball in a ruck with his hands near halfway, a rash act when Daly is on the opposite side. The full-back had the direction and distance, unlike Farrell from 45 metres on the hour, when the ball dipped under the crossbar. Pollard was on target after Brad Shields strayed offside before England won a physical battle.
Williams got the better of Thomas du Toit at an attacking scrum in a battle of the 20st props and Farrell converted from 30 metres with eight minutes to go. When England collapsed a scrum four minutes later, Pollard took aim from 48 metres in front of the posts. Eddie Jones could barely watch and when the ball deflected off the post to safety, he left his seat in the stand to move to the touchline. It was almost a case of premature celebration but his luck, for once this year, held.