The Springboks didn’t exactly fire on all cylinders, but then they didn’t have to as they hammered England 58-10 in the first test at Vodacom Park in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
The South Africans were playing their first game of the year after just a week together. Seven days earlier the players in the Springbok starting team were tearing into each other for the Bulls and the Sharks in the Super 14 final.
Given all of this, it was understandable that the Boks were not all that fluid at the start, and to be honest, they were slightly disjointed for most of the way. But the England team they were playing against was decidedly second rate after being denuded of most of their first choice players because of last week’s Heineken Cup final.
That should not bother the victorious Boks though, for the South African team that lost 53-3 at Twickenham four and a half years ago was seriously under-strength too. And this emphatic triumph will go some way towards erasing that unhappy memory, with the possibility of even more to come when these two teams go to Fortress Loftus next week.
The game was not great shakes at the start, and for a while it seemed the emotional and physical toil put in by many of the players in the Super 14 had left the home team looking just a little bit jaded. The telling difference between the teams though was at the contact points, with England giving the impression at times that they were going backwards both on attack and on defence such was the force with which they were knocked back in the tackle.
Two early Percy Montgomery penalties gave the Boks a 6-0 lead after 17 minutes. Then came the moment Ashwin Willemse fans would have been waiting for as the wing, playing his first test match since the narrow defeat to Ireland in Dublin in November 2004, scored the first try of the match in the right hand corner.
It came off a buildup which included a sequence of drives upfield in the close channels before the ball was spread wide. Jean de Villiers was particularly impressive in ensuring that the ball was kept alive as he sent a perfect delayed pass to fullback Percy Montgomery who had the hand speed to put Willemse in.
Willemse had another good run later in the match before being replaced by Francois Steyn a quarter of an hour into the second half. When he left the field he had shown his paces and done enough to vindicate White’s decision to select him so soon after ending his long lay-off.
Before England had put any points on the board, the Boks had scored again, Bryan Habana grabbing onto a poor pass just inside his own 22 and sprinting 70 metres for the try and a 20-0 lead. When England did finally call the scoreboard operators into action it was from a long-range penalty, from just inside his own half, from Jonny Wilkinson.
The flyhalf was on the day generally as poor as most of his teammates, and although he was on target with the penalty, some of his tactical kicking and decision making was poor.
Decision making has always been a Jean de Villiers strength, but in this match so was his pace and finishing ability. The Boks had dispossessed England deep inside their own half, with De Villiers, Victor Matfield and skipper John Smit figuring in the basket-ball style passing that eventually found De Villiers in possession again with a small gap in front of him.
Once through it he was in the clear, but was twice challenged, once by two England defenders and he made them all look quite foolish as he wrong-footed them before going over for a great individual try.
With the Boks leading 30-3 at half-time, it looked as though the hosts might easily eclipse the 50 point deficit they lost by at Twickenham in 2002, but, and perhaps understandably considering how fatigued they might be after so much non-stop big rugby, they appeared to lose a bit of interest after the break.
They also made a couple of substitutions, and Bakkies Botha, so impressive in the initial stages, was missed in the last 40.
England had most of the ball in the second half and did most of the playing, but they were just so abjectly poor that it didn’t matter. They did score a try through James Simpson-Daniel during a period when the Boks were decidedly sloppy, but in the last 12 minutes of the match the Boks ran in four tries to complete the annihilation.
A feature of the last minutes was the play of Ruan Pienaar, who came on as a replacement not at his rightful position of scrumhalf, where Ricky Januarie was poor, but on the wing. His strong weaving runs played a prominent part in the tries rounded off by Francois Steyn and CJ van der Linde.
Talking of Steyn, he came on initially for Willemse, but ended up moving to inside centre when De Villiers left the field with an injury. It was the fourth position Steyn has played for the Boks in five matches (four tests and the match against a World XV) and he looked as accomplished there as he has looked at fullback, wing and flyhalf. It was a good start for the Boks, and White would have been pleased with the comeback form of Willemse as well as Schalk Burger, who took the man-of-match for a performance that was so typically Schalk, and which was capped with one of the tries scored in that late flurry.