And Eddie said it wasn’t about revenge. You could have fooled me in the final hectic moments of this helter-skelter game, when all the Twickenham crowd was up on its feet and screaming, while the players down below set about each other, pushing and shoving in the rush of blood, everyone desperate to stake their claim on the game. There were two points in it then, and less than a minute left to play. And from the middle of all this chaos, out stepped Marcus Smith, to line up the match-winning kick. It was only 25 metres or so out, but these were, without doubt, the highest stakes he’s played for yet.
Watching on from the sidelines, Jonny Hill turned to Courtney Lawes and said “imagine taking this kick”. Away behind Smith, Freddie Steward was muttering to himself “please don’t miss, please don’t miss.”
Smith didn’t even seem to think twice. Of course, he made it. Even then, South Africa weren’t done fighting. Referee Andrew Brace had to bring in the TMO to rule on one last England penalty after the restart, after Eben Etzebeth clattered into Steward as he made a catch. And again everyone swarmed around Brace, fighting over his decision. Lawes, who had already been replaced, even came charging on to the pitch himself, and had to be pulled away again by Hill, who chased after him. Lawes said afterwards that he had got overexcited because he thought the game was over already.
When Brace finally blew his whistle again, the South Africans charged Smith, who had to whip quickly around on his heels and boot the ball backwards into touch. I’m not sure Twickenham has ever sounded as loud as it did in those final moments.
God, but it was a hell of a game, a reminder of everything you love about Test rugby. It was one of England’s best wins since Jones took charge in 2016, all the better because it looked, for so long, like they were bound to lose. Me, I thought they’d blown it when there were five minutes left, and they were trailing by two points. They won a penalty after Siya Kolisi took out Joe Marchant in the air. It was in goal-kicking distance, a metre or so inside South Africa’s half, but they decided to kick to touch instead. They had only just scored a brilliant try off a lineout, so you could understand why, but this time Etzebeth stole the ball, and the chance was gone.
South Africa had dominated the second half. England had the edge in the scrums in the first 40 minutes, when their rookie front row won all four. They were awarded three penalties off them, and scored tries off the back of two. But South Africa readjusted at half time and the game had changed. They won three scrum penalties in a row, two against Kyle Sinckler, and another against Will Stuart, who were both penalised for standing up, buckling under the intolerable pressure. The second of them led to a lineout, which South Africa turned into a rolling maul that rumbled 10m, then 20m downfield into England’s 22. Desperate, they conceded another penalty for collapsing the maul.
So, South Africa mauled again. And this time came right up to England’s try line. It became a game of inches, a pile of mad thrashing bodies in a heap, the ball lost somewhere in the thick of it, till it emerged, somehow, in the arms of Max Malins, flat on his back, and beaming a brilliant smile. Those are the moments, down there in the dirt, fighting to hold the line, that tell you so much about the character of a team. England didn’t win the match then, but they would have lost it if they’d given in. “The only reason we won that game is we were fighting for each other,” Lawes said afterwards.
South Africa had to settle for a penalty. That made it a one-point game, 18-17. And then England scored that try. It was a brilliant one, against the run of play. They went short at a lineout in midfield, Raffi Quirke slipped the ball to Henry Slade, who snapped it on to Marchant while Smith ran a dummy loop around the back that wrongfooted the defenders lining up in front of them. Marchant beat Lukhanyo Am with a step, and set off downfield. Quirke, razor quick, was right there alongside him on his inside shoulder to take the final pass. It was a lethal bit of finishing. But it brought them only a minute’s grace. South Africa scored off what felt like the very next play, and it was back to being a one-point game again. Then South Africa kicked the penalty to go two points ahead, and set up those final minutes.
Jones said there’s a lot left to work on. They conceded 18 penalties. In Test rugby, teams aim to keep their total in single figures but England’s indiscipline has been a running theme this year and unless they fix it, it is going to cost them sooner rather than later. But Jones, a relentless taskmaster, wouldn’t have it any other way. He wants them ready for 2023, and there are, undoubtedly, the makings of a very special team here.