Home Sports Matt Dawson column: England claimed biggest win since 2019 against Springboks

Matt Dawson column: England claimed biggest win since 2019 against Springboks

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Matt Dawson

Saturday’s victory against South Africa is England’s biggest win since their 2019 World Cup semi-final defeat of New Zealand.

It was a different kind of win to that occasion. On Saturday they had to really dig deep and battle, with a late Marcus Smith penalty eventually edging it 27-26.

A lot of teams would have succumbed under that amount of pressure from the world champions.

The Springboks had a python grip on England and took the lead after the hosts conceded a string of penalties.

But England’s replacements brought energy, impact and continuity and they got themselves out of it.

It was a brilliant, tense atmosphere at Twickenham. It was palpable that the world champions were in town.

It is not easy to get yourself out of a hole in international rugby. Were it not for Raffi Quirke’s try, everyone would have been saying after the game that England got absolutely hammered in the second half.

But the wave of England support and the energy it gave the players in the last 10 minutes was awesome.

It is very difficult to dig yourself out of those positions and it has been a while since England have done that.

That is a massive takeaway that they will bottle up and take forward.

‘That win shakes off World Cup nightmare’

Sam Underhill and Tom Curry celebrate England win over South Africa
Sam Underhill and Tom Curry gained a measure of revenge for 2019’s World Cup final defeat on Saturday

That was the first time England had played South Africa since being beaten by the Springboks in the 2019 World Cup final.

Without a shadow of doubt, it would have been a sweet feeling after Saturday’s win.

Of course it does not make amends for not winning the World Cup but it shakes off that ongoing nightmare that people will have about Yokohama in 2019.

Now they know they can beat South Africa. They know what it takes, they know what mindset they need to be in. You have to have that experience of winning against top sides.

A vast majority of those England players will be going to the World Cup and it stands them in great stead.

‘England offered a Harrods-like shop window’

England are now building for that 2023 World Cup and in each four-year cycle you need defining moments to show that certain players and combinations are physically and mentally ready to play at that level.

Head coach Eddie Jones will look through that squad today and see a lot of players in that transitional part of the cycle.

It is a long list: Jamie Blamire, Bevan Rodd, Alex Dombrandt, Sam Simmonds, Raffi Quirke, Marcus Smith, Freddie Steward, Henry Slade, Max Malins.

Jones is probably looking at them now and thinking they are in the frame to go to the 2023 World Cup.

A lot of the talk pre-match was about the absence through injury or coronavirus of props Joe Marler and Ellis Genge, hookers Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie, and captain Owen Farrell.

Marler returned from his Covid-19 isolation to start on the bench, but that was by no means England’s strongest XV.

They faced adversity during the game too. Manu Tuilagi went off straight after scoring his early try and Will Stuart was sin-binned.

It was England who had the calm head when under the pump to make the right decisions.

If they are going to play like that under that sort of pressure, imagine what you could be doing when you have got a full-strength England side.

For the coaching staff, it was a Harrods-like shop window of players. It was very appealing and would make anyone go in and buy the product.

‘It is time for England to embrace the favourites tag’

Of course, there was some frustration that England did not play more rugby in the second half.

They scored two tries in the first 20 minutes and that is when you really want to press on and make the opposition panic.

Going into the second half, the South Africans got their half-time right and England started to play a closed down game.

They will learn from that, though. For them to change how they were playing mid-half to take the win, I have been crying out for that for years so that needs to be celebrated.

England wanted to get the ball in play and get it wide quickly. They are now starting to be able to deliver different types of tactics to play different types of opposition.

That is genuine progress and we should not doubt England’s ability to attack. They have proven they have got the players and the strategy to do that.

But questions are going to be asked when there is something on the line like a Grand Slam or Six Nations title. Games when pressure is on to win and everything is at stake.

Rather than being the underdogs, can England hold that favourites tag? Because when England get on a bit of a roll at a World Cup, everyone makes them favourites.

They need to harness that. Going into the 2022 Six Nations, it is now time for England to grab hold of the favourite’s tag and embrace it, whether they are or not.

Matt Dawson was speaking to BBC Sport’s Becky Grey.

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