England narrowly beat South Africa 12-11 in their first test of the Autumn internationals on Saturday.
This was a game which South Africa should have won, they completely out-powered England in the scrum and dominated the first half. They suffered from the absence of their scrum half Faf de Clerk, who was not released by Sale Sharks. At full back Willie La Roux was also missing but even with these gaps in the South African squad, it was their game to loose.
After coming into the game having gathered a strong reputation this year, having been put forward for Super Rugby’s player of the year, Malcom Marx had a terrible game. The South African hooker, who Clive Woodward dubbed ‘the best hooker in the world’ perfomed poorly, his throwing into the line was weak and could have been what lost the Springboks the game. Bad decision making from South Africa meant that they failed to convert possession and pressure into points. They refused to take penalty points which were on offer and had they converted these opportunities they may have gained up to nine more points. South Africa had a much stronger back row which was felt by the English front row in the first half; England gave away penalties and were going backwards in the scrum, which can be very psychologically damaging. The replacement front row for England in the second half, of Moon, George and Williams, was much better in the scrum.
Eddie Jones has some real decisions to make as to his personnel for this week’s game. Tighthead prop Kyle Sinckler was brilliant in loose play but struggled with the scrummage and Alec Hepburn at loose head prop is likely to be replaced. At under 16 stone Hepburn was outpowered and struggled in the scrum. His teammate from Exeter, Ben Moon, was much stronger whilst packing down. England completely transformed thier play in the second half, especially when the game broke up. They increased their pace across the field and looked threatening in attack. Jonny May had an outstanding game and could have won Man of the Match, which was given to Mark Wilson on his England debut. Farrell was moved to number ten, the position he is most comfortable in, with Ford absent from the side. This breaking up of the Ford- Farrell axis was smart from Jones, with Ford’s tackling often unreliable. Farrell is usually pushed to centre but at fly-half he had a strong game. Farrell saved England near the end of the game by ripping the ball from South Africa. There will be much debate as to whether his final tackle was lawful, as he arguably made a no arms tackle with his shoulder. South Africa weren’t awarded a penalty which if converted would’ve given them the match.
Elliot Daly is usually a star player but had a poor day. He failed to catch the high ball on several occasions and can probably be held responsible for Nkosi’s try. His vision was poor on two occasions and had he seen May on the outside, points for England may have followed. After playing a game which they likely should have lost, England will need to greatly improve for their next fixture.
New Zealand, who will face England for the first time since 2014, will offer an even greater challenge this weekend. As the number one team in the world they arguably have the most skilful, fittest and well organised side currently playing in international rugby. England are likely to struggle but to have any chance of winning they’ll need to strengthen their pack and hold onto the ball instead of kicking the ball loosely away. Any possession givenaway to the All Blacks will lead to an inevitable avalanche of tries. Daly will be put to the test again with a bombardment of high kicks, a challenge which he failed at this week. When at his best, Daly can be a strike weapon and along with the rest of the back three will need to covert their power into points on Saturday.
Tom Curry is likely to be unable to play having been injured during the match which limits Jones’ options in the back row. If Courtney Lawes is to play, who has been injured with a bad back, he could provide some important height in the line and make it more likely that England can win their set pieces. England need to address the clear weaknesses in their front row, an area in which New Zealand are well organised and powerful. Jones should give careful thought to his front row that played in the second half. George was excellent at hooker and made a key difference, however it is likely that as co-captain, Dylan Hartley will start. He played well but is an asset overall for his leadership and expeience, having more caps than the rest of the forwards combined.