Saturday’s third Test may have been a dead rubber but the 25-10 victory was a life-saver for England’s self-respect. Had they lost in Cape Town it would have been the team’s sixth straight international defeat, not including a salutary loss to a rampant Barbarians side at Twickenham. Their player of the tour, Jonny May, reckoned it was among the most significant international wins he has experienced. “It was awesome,” the wing said. “I feel like the team has got its mojo back. In those last 20 minutes we just grew and grew and it felt like the England we are used to playing for.”
2) Growing squad depth
One of Eddie Jones’s tour priorities was to identify some fresh options capable of strengthening his World Cup squad. He was particularly pleased with May, who caused the Boks problems from start to finish, but Newlands also further enhanced the reputation of the young Sale flanker, Tom Curry. Joe Marler, in addition, underlined his scrummaging strengths, leaving both Mako Vunipola and Ellis Genge with little option but to start next season strongly. And, oh yes, a bloke called Danny Cipriani did his World Cup prospects no harm.
3) Attacking edge
Over the entire series England scored 76 points to the Springboks’ 75 and the two sides registered eight tries apiece. In international rugby the margins between success and failure grow ever thinner and, despite losing the first two Tests, England’s backline were gloriously sharp at times. Jones is now hoping his latest attacking consultant, Scott Wisemantel, can continue to be involved on a campaign‑by‑campaign basis, despite his family being based in Australia. The players clearly appreciated Wisemantel’s input.
4) Greater tactical flexibility
Behind the scrum England are developing a collective unit who, if required, can slot in virtually anywhere. At times in Cape Town, Owen Farrell operated at 13 and Mike Brown at 15, despite the numbers on their jerseys. They have left-footed kicking options coming out of their ears and, when Lions such as Ben Te’o, Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson re-enter the frame, will be able to adapt their game to virtually any type of opposition. Should the currently French-based Chris Ashton and a fit-again Manu Tuilagi also become available again, rival coaches will genuinely start to twitch.
5) Bigger picture
Peaking for World Cups has been one of Jones’s specialities, as he proved with Japan in 2015. England may have lost this series but no-one will mention that if they lift the Webb Ellis Cup next year. “We picked a World Cup squad yesterday and it is not too different from what we had pencilled in before,” said Jones on Saturday night. “There may be one or two guys on this tour who have fought their way into the World Cup squad … but we have a pretty good idea who can go forward and who can’t. A lot of those guys weren’t on tour.”
Areas of concern
1) False dawn?
It should not be forgotten that England were beaten in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein and were facing a partly experimental Springbok side at Newlands. They will not come up against many international fly-halves as ineffective in damp conditions as Elton Jantjes and their fifth-placed finish in the Six Nations cannot yet be entirely airbrushed from history. This autumn’s fixtures against South Africa, New Zealand, Japan and Australia at Twickenham are far from straightforward; if three of them are lost, England will have been beaten in eight of their last 10 games. In that event the Cape Town feelgood factor will count for little.
2) Improving opposition
3) Flawed thinking
Talk to any South African and they will express surprise about England’s decision to base themselves at sea-level for a series in which the first two Tests were played at altitude. Maybe it was all about longer-term World Cup planning but it placed England under unnecessary extra pressure and, arguably, played straight into Springbok hands. And why bring good Premiership players such as Alex Lozowski, Dan Robson and Jason Woodward and not give them a single minute’s rugby? Confetti caps are to be avoided but Jones’s treat-em-mean approach can sometimes feel counter-productive.
4) Mixed messages
The players genuinely seem to enjoy each other’s company and, at the fag end of a long season, deserve credit for the character they showed in adversity. Even in the face of serious frustration, however, it doesn’t enhance English rugby’s image – or that of the game itself – when the head coach and squad members are dragged into spats with fans after matches or give the media increasingly short shrift. Jones favours a tightly controlled squad environment but encouraging greater self-expression might just benefit all concerned.
5) Uncertain leadership
Paul Gustard’s decision to join Harlequins has left England looking for a new defence coach, with negotiations continuing about Wisemantel’s future as attack consultant. Captaincy did not noticeably affect Owen Farrell’s goal-kicking in Cape Town but if Cipriani remains in the picture, as he should do, it will be fascinating to see how his relationship with Farrell develops. Farrell and George Ford are long-time allies but the Gloucester-bound Cipriani’s cross‑kick for May’s try at Newlands was a thing of beauty. “I’d like to think there’s a lot more I can add,” said Cipriani. The ball is now in Jones’s and Farrell’s court.