The cool winter air in Johannesburg welcomed visitors from across South Africa and England on Saturday 9 June, as the Springboks hosted the Roses at Emirates Airline Park. Rassie Erasmus, was in search of his first win as the new Springbok head coach, in this his first home test match in charge of the Springboks.
Much had been made of selecting Siya Kolisi as the first black Springbok captain, and the largely inexperienced and youthful Springbok lineup had much to prove after losing to Wales in Washington a week earlier. Eddie Jones, head coach of England, equally had to get off to a winning start, as his side had recently came second last in the 6 Nations championships earlier in the season. This made for a highly anticipated head to head showdown.
England got proceedings off early when they took a long ranged penalty goal from inside their own half. Owen Farrell put the visitors into the lead early, before Mike Brown capitalized on some poor defense by the Springboks to cross over in the corner. Farrell made no mistake with the boot, and after five minutes, the visitors took a 0-10 lead.
Handre Pollard got the hosts onto the scoreboard five minutes later with a penalty, before Elliot Daly crossed over in the same corner for England’s second try. Farrell continued his kicking form to take England to a 3-17 lead.
The hosts began to look out of their depths on defense, as Farrell crossed over under the posts after an easy walk through the Springbok line. He converted his own try, and the hosts looked completely discouraged.
It took a moment of brilliance and a stutter step for Faf de Klerk to snipe over the line for the home side, leaving a difficult kick ahead for Pollard. Pollard was unable to add the extra points, and the Springboks still trailed by a large 8-24.
The hosts started to build some better attacking phases, as they looked to fight their way back into the contest. Sibusiso Nkosi was given the ball out wide and chipped the ball into the goal area. A misfield by the English defense allowed the debutant to collect his kick and score the Springboks’ second try in the corner. Pollard added the extras, and the Springboks were back to a more respectable 15-24 deficit with ten minutes left in the half.
It was all the Springboks for the remainder of the half, as Nkosi managed to get a double, this time on the opposite wing. Pollard took the hosts ever closer to the English lead with the conversion, as the Springboks only trailed by two points late in the first half.
After some set play magic from South Africa, they finally managed to take the lead. Willie le Roux was welcomed back into the Springbok side with a try in the last two minutes of the half. Pollard extended the lead with the conversion, and for the first time in the match, South Africa lead by 29-24.
In the final play of the half, England were awarded a very kickable penalty. Farrell continued his hundred percent record, and the half time whistle blew. Despite the shaky start, South Africa went into half time with a 29-27 lead.
The second half started with the South Africans having all of the ball, but their handling let them down. After extending their lead with a penalty through Pollard, the Springboks looked to settle the play and start playing their own structured style of rugby.
The English were dealt a blow after Mako Vunipola was deemed to have taken out a chaser without the ball, receiving a yellow card for his infringement. The Springboks were able to capitalize on their numbers advantage, as Aphiwe Dyantyi crossed over the line for his first international try. Pollard’s boot extended the lead to 39-27, with only fifteen minutes remaining.
The visitors managed to claw back a try with ten minutes left in the match, after Maro Itoje crashed over the line from a pod. Farrell missed the conversion for the first time on the night, and the hosts remained ahead by 39-32 with ten minutes left to play.
As the clock ran down, the Springboks looked a lot more comfortable. Pollard added another penalty to the hosts’ tally. In the dying minutes of the match, England’s Daly managed to run through the South African defense to score under the poles. Farrell quickly converted, and the final two minutes of the match saw the hosts lead by 42-39.
After a lineout steal and some smart play, the Springboks had possession after the final hooter had sounded. They booted the ball into touch, and the referee confirmed that Erasmus’ men had secured their first victory under their new coach. The final score read 42-39 to the Springboks.
After the match, Eddie Jones was happy with the start that his side showed. “I thought it was a wonderful game of rugby. For the first twenty minutes there were patches where we were brilliant,” said Jones. He suggested that the start they had gave England a false sense of confidence. “We were seduced by the game, which allowed South Africa to get back into the game.”
Jones believed that the match was full of momentum shifts, stressing that their decision to be based at the coast did not affect the outcome of the match. “When we balanced possession better, we got back into the game. We don’t think that the benefits of staying at altitude are massive enough [to warrant being based at altitude],” said Jones, adding, “we did not lose the game today because of altitude.”
Despite the loss, Jones acknowledged what the win meant for South African rugby and world rugby as a whole. “Whilst I am desperately unhappy to have lost the game, I think it is a great thing for the game of rugby,” said Jones. “The transformation to have the first black captain and to win at Ellis Park, the spiritual homeground of South African rugby, I think is an enormously symbolic thing for South Africa and it shows that the transformation is working,” said Jones.
Rassie Erasmus conceded that his tenure as Spirngbok coach did not get off to the best start. “Last week was not the start we wanted. [This week] We made a lot of errors; handling and knocking the ball on with passes that weren’t on,” said Erasmus.
“We thought they were going to kick, and they just started running, which surprised the team,” said Erasmus. “I think the moment we realized that, the players shifted their play to adjust to the way [England] were playing.”
Erasmus admitted that they could have been put out of the match by the visitors. “I think they could have put us away. I think we were [both]sloppy, in that we never took the game away from each other.”
Siya Kolisi, the springbok captain, was happy to have won in his debut match as captain. “I was very nervous. I think the most important thing for me was to pitch up and play together as a team,” said Kolisi. “I think we did what we wanted to, we didn’t start the way we wanted to, but we worked hard throughout the game.”
Erasmus backed his decision to play a largely inexperienced side, and was happy with how they came together. “[This week] I was worried, because there were a lot of inexperienced players up against some really experienced England players,” said Erasmus, adding, “I think when you have that amount of test caps in a team, there will always be a lot of work to be done.” Erasmus stressed that he plans on making a few bold calls ahead of the World Cup next year. “We want to go to the world cup with a squad of 30 that we trust.”
Kolisi agreed with Erasmus, in that he was happy with how the young side came together to support each other. “I think everything came together for us. I think we all started getting in sync with each other.”
The Springboks and England will now travel to Bloemfontein, ahead of the next test on 16 June at the Free State Stadium.
Tries: Faf de Klerk, S’Busiso Nkosi x2, Willie le Roux, Aphiwe Dyantyi
Conversions: Handre Pollard x4
Penalties: Handre Pollard x3
Tries: Mike Brown, Elliot Daly x2, Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje
Conversions: Owen Farrell x4
Penalties: Owen Farrell x2
Yellow cards: Mako Vunipola