Nowhere to hide for England after drubbing
England manager Martin Johnson called on his players to show their true “character” after a record-breaking 42-6 defeat at the hands of world champions South Africa.
But with Tri-Nations title-holders New Zealand on their way to Twickenham, England’s 2003 World Cup-winning captain admitted things might get worse before they got better, with the All Blacks on a verge of a grand slam after beating Wales 29-9.
This Twickenham trouncing represented England’s heaviest margin of defeat in all their home internationals, a sequence dating back to 1872.
“They [the players] are pretty desolate down there. To lose like that at home is a big disappointment,” Johnson said after Saturday’s humbling reverse.
“But we’ve said it’s all about character. They are still our best players and we need to stand up this week and be counted and come out against arguably the best team in the world in New Zealand.”
South Africa’s 36-point margin, the same as they achieved in a 36-0 thrashing of England in a pool match at last year’s World Cup before defeating England 15-6 in the final, comfortably surpassed the 21-point gap New Zealand managed in a 41-20 win at Twickenham two years ago.
England’s defence was torn to shreds by a South Africa side which made the most of turnovers and scored five tries through Danie Rossouw, Ruan Pieenaar, Adrian Jacobs, Jaque Fourie and Bryan Habana.
Four of those were converted, three by Pieenar and one by Francois Steyn with outside-half Pienaar also landing three penalties on his was way to a match haul of 20 points.
All England could manage in reply was two first-half penalties from fly-half Danny Cipriani.
South Africa had all but won the game at halftime when they were 20-6 ahead and, although England rallied at the start of the second period, superb defence kept Johnson’s men at bay.
England, beaten 28-14 at home by Australia the previous week, were once again, in their manager’s words, taught a “brutal lesson”.
At times, with the 21-year-old Cipriani, who for the second time in three Tests had a kick charged down for an opposition try, spraying passes into touch in what was only his fifth Test and the forwards conceding penalties, it seemed that what England needed most was Martin Johnson the captain, not the manager.
Johnson was renowned in his playing days for being able to get a grip of his team and tell them what they needed to do to win when in a tricky situation.
But the legendary Leicester lock, appointed to the England job despite no senior coaching experience, would not be the first great player to discover how much things can change when you cross the touchline for good.
England, who’ve now won just four of their 21 Tests against the Tri-Nations teams since lifting the World Cup in 2003, experienced some humbling reverses on the way to Johnson raising the Webb Ellis Trophy.
“Playing these games will make them better players,” said Johnson, clearly a believer in the idea of short-term pain leading to long-term gain.
“It only gets harder in terms of the team we are playing against and the week we are going to have. But that’s when you find out about the characters in our team, our coaching staff and management and myself.”
Despite everything, Johnson saw signs of progress.
“Last week we had opportunities to create them and this week we created them but didn’t take them. I’ve beaten the Springboks in three games and not created as many chances as we’ve had today to score tries.
“South Africa defended very well and stopped us. They gave us a lesson in some areas of the game, obviously the main one was scoring tries, turning pressure into points.
“Our effort was fantastic but they are learning the brutal harsh lessons of this sport at top level against a world champion side. There’s no point me saying ‘the score doesn’t reflect the play’, it does.
“For vast areas of the game, we’ve competed with South Africa and created as many try-scoring opportunities as them but it just sounds so hollow when you’ve lost 42-6.”
Johnson has decided to do without the likes of veteran centre Mike Tindall while, on Saturday, lock Simon Shaw had to come off the bench before winning his 50th cap.
However, Johnson insisted he had no choice but to stick with his current, and largely youthful, group of players.
“There’s no 50-cap cavalry coming over the hill in a lot of positions. This is our squad and we back them.” - AFP