CHRIS FOY: Marcus Smith is the spearhead of a brave new world for England… their courage to keep taking risks was the key to victory against South Africa
- England avenged defeat in 2019 Rugby World Cup final with thrilling win
- Marcus Smith kicked a late penalty to secure England’s third win of the autumn
- Manu Tuilagi and Freddie Steward scored first half tries to put England 14-3 up
- Springboks came back in the second half and led 26-24 with a minute left
The word Marcus Smith kept using to sum up why England won was ‘courage’. It takes a hefty dose of physical bravery to beat the Springboks, but what Smith meant was the courage to keep taking risks.
This backs-to-the-wall victory over the world champions was the result which launched a new, exciting era for England but the delight was in the detail. It was the way they did it which was so significant. Smith settled a classic at Twickenham with a last-minute penalty from in front of the posts but that does not tell the story — and what a story it was.
After half-time, Eddie Jones’s side were under siege against a dominant South African pack and they gave away penalties in torrents. But they clinched a clean sweep of autumn wins because of their never-say-die courage.
Marcus Smith held his nerve to give England victory against South Africa on Saturday
They refused to accept what for so long appeared to be a hopeless cause. And they refused to stop trusting their daring instincts.
Very few teams have found ways to repeatedly breach South Africa’s blitz but Jones’s men did so a third time 15 minutes from the end when fly-half Smith’s looping, gesticulating run distracted the visitors just enough for Henry Slade to release Joe Marchant, who in turn sent substitute scrum-half Raffi Quirke clear to score.
That lightning strike was further evidence of English creativity which had been gloriously showcased in the first half, when Slade’s daring long pass ignited the raid which led to a try for full back Freddie Steward. The home side were rewarded for being bold, from start to finish.
When England were behind and chasing in the last five minutes, they didn’t revert to blasting away in futile hope — quite the opposite. Smith’s chip for Marchant to chase earned a penalty and a yellow card for Boks captain Siya Kolisi.
Next, Slade threw a long pass right deep in his own half to spark a counter-attack, before Smith fizzed the ball flat across Jesse Kriel and out to wing Jonny May. It was an act of dazzling audacity.
With England trailing 26-24 late in the second half, Smith stepped up to win the game
Then came the check-mate moment, as the England No 10 shaped to kick, before opting to side-step past one, two and almost three defenders, drawing a penalty offence from the hapless Frans Steyn in centre field. The shot at goal which followed was all about composure, but what led to it was all about calculated risk which earned an epic reward.
Smith said: ‘We just thought we had to provide a different picture to South Africa and to do that we had to have courage. We prepared brilliantly for the game and it was just a showcase of our training. We really did have courage to chance it at times.
‘We had to have the courage to keep playing because not many teams beat South Africa if you play them at their game. The coaches gave us the licence to be courageous and have a go. It made my job easy and simple. Just do your job and the rest will happen.’
Smith acknowledged that this result was founded in large part on the ability of the backs to adapt to an early reshuffle when Manu Tuilagi was forced off with a hamstring strain after scoring the opening try. Slade and Marchant joined forces in midfield, Malins came on to the wing and they all gelled superbly.
What they also did was showcase the sterling work done by new attack coach Martin Gleeson, who has brought energy and invention to galvanise England, in much the same way as Scott Wisemantel did in 2018. The players have instantly taken to the former rugby league player and coach.
‘Gleeson has been amazing for us as an attacking unit,’ said Smith. ‘He’s full of ideas — and he always does it with a smile on his face. It’s brilliant to work with someone like that. I’ve learned a huge amount from him.’
Perhaps the ultimate symbol of the tactical liberation is Slade. The Exeter centre was at the heart of England’s best moments. In the absence of Owen Farrell, his influence was enhanced. And his technique and nerve stood up to the task of implementing a high-risk strategy.
Smith rightly lauded the first-half pass which left South Africa exposed out wide prior to Steward’s try. ‘It’s massively courageous for Sladey to throw that ball to Freddie,’ said Harlequins’ rookie playmaker. ‘It’s a tough skill. Henry was practising all week with Freddie. We saw it as an opportunity. It’s about varying our attack and being courageous with the ball in hand.’
This was a mood-changing occasion in front of a delirious full house. The tedium of last autumn is now a fading memory. The gloom which followed a fifth-place finish in the last Six Nations has been chased out of town.
Steward is a wonderful ‘find’, as is Quirke, who could be the long-term successor to Ben Youngs, while Bevan Rodd and Jamie Blamire coped admirably as front-row rookies at the sharp end of the pack battle, at least until half-time.
So much has changed so fast. When England lost the 2019 World Cup final, Steward was watching with team-mates at Loughborough University and Rodd had just made his debut for semi-professional Sale FC. Now the pair have both had a major hand in lowering the colours of the No 1 nation.
England’s transition is gathering momentum and it may accelerate. They have shown that they can cope without the comfort blanket of Farrell as captain.
Courtney Lawes has handled the role with distinction, while producing the best form of his stellar career. The team have rallied behind the popular Northampton forward.
There must be a renewed drive for set-piece and breakdown improvements but the overall outlook is bright. By omitting certain veterans and not rushing them back as a panic measure, Jones has created greater depth in various positions.
England will set their sights on the Six Nations next with the belief that they can be title challengers again, albeit in a crowded field.
But first they will enjoy the after-glow of a momentous triumph. It is still early, but the signs are that this new era could be fruitful — and fun, too.
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