England produced a confidence-injecting defensive display to beat South Africa in their opening Test of the autumn internationals, but only after a controversial finish saw Owen Farrell’s escape with what looked to be a shoulder charge.
The final play of the match was reviewed after Australian referee Angus Gardner has initially blown for full-time, but along with Irish Television Match Official [TMO] Olly Hodges, they reviewed Farrell’s tackle on the Springbok replacement Andre Esterhuizen that led to England turning the ball over.
Farrell appeared to hit Esterhuizen with his shoulder without wrapping his arm, but both Gardner and Hodges decided that the England fly-half had not done anything illegal in the process of smashing Esterhuizen into next week.
“I was thinking I hope he doesn’t penalise us,” Jones said after the 12-11 victory. “It was a good solid tackle. It’s not for me to adjudicate.”
England will now sweat on whether Farrell will face any disciplinary action for the tackle, with New Zealand citing commissioner Keith Brown having 24 hours from the end of the match to charge any players for foul play.
Jones did not seem to concerned that Farrell had fallen foul of the law, but his South African counterpart, Rassie Erasmus, seemed less than convinced as he claimed that if Farrell’s tackle was legal, everyone should start tackling like it.
“Nothing upset me, because if it was legal we just have to latch on a little bit and tackle the same. If it was legal, we should do it because it’s very effective. To tackle a guy like Andre Esterhuizen like that and stop him in his track, that’s unbelievable, so we’ll have to try and practice that.”
Pushed on whether his sarcastic tone demonstrated his unhappiness, Erasmus added: “No not at all, I just think it’s really effective.”
The victory though will not go unnoticed, given how England coped without an injury list that stretched to 18 players this week when Manu Tuilagi and Courtney Lawes were added to it.
With a massively underpowered pack compared to their hulking opponents, England struggled to get into the game and by half-time had just 33 per cent possession and 22 per cent territory, such was the Springboks’ grip on the game.
And yet, the hosts were just two points down at the break, with South Africa’s poor handling and execution letting England off the hook a number of times.
For England, it was a familiar case of ill-discipline that dogged their efforts, and not for the first time Maro Itoje found himself at the forefront of the referee’s ire. Having conceded an early penalty for tackling in the air at the lineout, he conceded a swift second and by the time the third indiscretion came in the 16th minute, referee Gardner had lost his patience. In killing the ball five metres out, Itoje was sent to the sin-bin, although South Africa failed to build on the three-point lead that Pollard had given them as repeated kicks to the corner came to nothing when the off-colour Malcolm Marx overthrew twice in the lineout - he would save one more for the second half much to the cost of the visitors.
In fact, England managed to win the sin-bin period as Owen Farrell levelled the scores with a penalty of his own.
But the Springboks went in search of maximum damage and found it with the only try of the match, as a swift break down the left from centre Damian de Allende led to space on the right, and it was left to Aphiwe Dyantyi and Warren Whiteley to send Sbi Nkosi over in the corner. Pollard failed to land the conversion, and while no one knew it at the time, it would prove costly.
Farrell added an immediate second penalty to cut the lead, but in the second half tide turned emphatically.
Suddenly the game was all England as Farrell and Ben Te’o grew into the contest, with the British and Irish Lions pair leading by example in defence tha in turn transformed their attack and brought electric wings Jonny May and Jack Nowell into play.
After De Allende needlessly conceded a penalty for killing the ball when Gardner had told him not to, Elliot Daly stepped up to kick a 49m penalty that somehow gave England the lead.
By now, the hosts were growing in confidence, and although Pollard added a second penalty when George Kruis held on to put South Africa back in front, there was only one side in the ascendency.
Daly twice wasted opportunities to release May when on the attack, and he should have been given the chance to land a second penalty effort only for Farrell to take the 45m kick and come up a metre short as the ball landed on the post protector.
But when England’s inexperienced pack emphatically won a scrum penalty through replacement prop Harry Williams deep in South African territory after strong running from Itoje and Slade, Farrell stepped up to kick what turned out to be the match-winning penalty.
Pollard had one late chance to snatch the win, but his penalty from 47m out shaved the outside of the right upright, and once the confusion over the final seconds was decided, England were left to celebrate what is a huge boost to their Rugby World Cup preparations.
England: Elliot Daly; Jack Nowell (Chris Ashton, 65), Henry Slade, Ben Te’o (George Ford, 72), Jonny May; Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs (Danny Care, 65); Alec Hepburn (Ben Moon, h-t), Dylan Hartley (Jamie George, 57), Kyle Sinckler (Harry Williams, 65); Maro Itoje, George Kruis; Brad Shields (Charlie Ewels, 77), Tom Curry (Zach Mercer, 42), Mark Wilson.
South Africa: Damian Willemse; Sbu Nkosi (Andre Esterhuizen, 60), Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende (Elton Jantjies, 77), Aphiwe Dyantyi; Handre Pollard, Ivan van Zyl (Embrose Papier, 75); Steven Kitschoff (Thomas du Toit, 65), Malcolm Marx (Bongi Mbonambi, 74), Frans Malherbe; Eben Etzebeth (RG Snyman, 42), Pieter-Steph du Toit; Siya Kolisi (Lood de Jager, 65), Duane Vermeulen, Warren Whiteley.
Referee: Angus Gardner (Aus)