The character shown by a team full of inexperienced players and some tactical changes on the field were two of the main reasons Rassie Erasmus felt the Springboks managed to overturn a significant deficit to beat England by 42-39 in the opening Test of the of the Series at Emirates Airline Park in Johannesburg.
England started with a bang and raced to a 24-3 lead in the opening quarter, thanks to three converted tries and a penalty goal, but SA Rugby’s Director of Rugby said they made a few tactical adjustments, which stared the comeback.
By the break, the Boks were ahead by 27-24 after a brace of tries by Sbu Nkosi, who was on debut for South Africa, as well as Willie le Roux and Faf de Klerk, both of whom were back in green and gold for the first time since 2016.
Aphiwe Dyantyi, also on debut, scored in the second half, and Handre Pollard added four conversions and three penalty goals for a personal haul of 17 points.
“It certainly wasn’t the start we wanted in our first Test at home and I was worried, because we had a lot of young players against a very experienced England side,” said Erasmus.
“It certainly could’ve gone from bad to worse, but credit to Siya (Kolisi), Duane (Vermeulen), Beast (Mtawarira) and Handre (Pollard), our senior players, for getting us back on track. Still, we only scraped through in the end and we made too many errors, so there is a lot for us to work on.
“When we managed to keep the ball, England were under the same stress we were early in the game. I’m proud of the guys – they showed character and it’s something we can take forward.”
Kolisi, who captained the Boks for the first time, said: “I was very nervous as we didn’t expect to have such a tough time early in the game, but we have guys who had been in situations like that before.
“Credit to the new caps, because they didn’t panic and showed they just wanted to play, so we decided to take control of the game and it worked.
“Everything came together for us, the nerves were gone, we managed to get into sync and do those things that we know we can do well. We obviously would have wanted to start better today, but the character the guys showed was amazing.”
Erasmus said he expected England to kick more, and they were a bit surprised when the visitors attacked the wide channels with relative ease.
“It was a tactical mistake on my part, but as soon as we realised we needed more width on defence, and the players adapted on the field, things started going our way,” said Erasmus, who admitted that the Boks will have to make a number of “brave decisions” in the next couple of months.
“When you have such a big number of players with very few Test caps, a lot of work will have to be done,” said Erasmus.
“If we had lost, it would’ve created doubt, but it will be a bit easier now to get consistency in selection. Still, we will have to try a few things next week and we will have to make big calls going forward, which probably means we’ll lose some matches, but we have to get players exposed to Test rugby and see if they have what it takes to make it at this level.
A sport feel-good-story...— 7s in South Africa (@BlitzBokke) June 9, 2018
Siyamthanda Kolisi getting Schalk Burger's autograph as a schoolboy.
Today, Kolisi will lead #SouthAfrica against @EnglandRugby at #EllisPark #RSAvENG pic.twitter.com/161zVp36Dd
“Our replacements all went to the USA last week and I expected them to run out of steam a bit after some time, but all of them made a big impact.
“There were some great individual performances, but we still made too many unnecessary errors and we have a lot to work on. Looking back, we probably got out of jail free today, but just as they could have put us away, we could have put them away.
“Next week’s Test in Bloemfontein will be massive.”
Billy Vunipola has revealed the reason for his latest injury scare – kicking an Aussie Rules ball.
And the Saracens star, now in South Africa as part of a 34-man England squad, said he initially did not tell his club coaches.
Vunipola has endured an injury ravaged season, with a hamstring problem being the most recent issue, although he made a try-scoring contribution to Saracens’ Premiership final victory over Exeter.
“I trained fully the week before against Wasps (in the play-offs) and I felt really good, but it was my fault,” the powerful number eight said.
“I was doing some AFL kicking and then the hammy went tight before the game.
“I didn’t tell the coaches that, but when I came off at half-time against Wasps I told them. I was like, ‘sorry guys, I was doing AFL kicking’. I stitched myself up there.
“I felt like I was back to normal, and when I feel like I’m back to normal I forget that I was injured and that’s probably why I get injured all the time.
“I had to manage myself a bit better the week after. Now I feel strong again, I had a really good start to the week. Hopefully, next week I will train fully and I will be fine.”
Vunipola has not played Test Rugby since March last year, but he is an integral part of an England group seeking to beat the Springboks in South Africa for the first time since 2000.
England also go into battle in Johannesburg next week on the back of a four-match losing run, having not won since toppling Wales at Twickenham on February 10.
Such a run of results is in stark contrast to the long unbeaten sequence they enjoyed during head coach Eddie Jones’ first 18 games in charge.
But Vunipola added: “It is probably a good thing that we have gone through this tough period because it gives us things we can work on.
“We are almost trying to prove ourselves again, which is probably a better motivator than where do we go from where we were before when we won two Six Nations titles.
“Eddie always drives our constant improvements, and it is better to try and improve when you have lost a few games and it is probably tougher on yourself when you are always winning.
“You probably think you are untouchable, and we are not, and it is a good lesson to learn. Hopefully, we can come together as a team on and off the pitch and really take this tour by the scruff of the neck.”
And Vunipola has no doubt what to expect from a South Africa team now under the coaching direction of former Munster boss Rassie Erasmus.
“We’ve just got to scrap for everything,” he said. “If we’re annoying or making them frustrated, that’s probably the best sign of how up for it we are. It means we are in their faces, otherwise they will just bully us off the park.
“That’s what they used to do really well, and obviously with a new coach coming in they will just go back to how they used to beat other teams: run over them, beat them up, using their big, physical pack to wear you down.
“Hopefully it’s going to be old school, just whose dad is bigger than whose dad. That is the challenge we’ve got ahead of us, and we’ve got to embrace it or we will be on the losing side.”
Eddie Jones was involved in a confrontation with South Africa fans as England fell to a thrilling 42-39 defeat at Ellis Park.
Supporters leaned over the railings and verbally insulted Jones as he walked down the tunnel at the end of the first Test.
The Australian stood his ground for 10 to 15 seconds and engaged with his tormentors before being ushered away by players and staff.
“They (South Africa fans) have always got plenty to say. Especially when they win,” Jones said after the match.
“I was just asking them where I could get a good bottle of Pinotage. I’m still waiting for the answer so if anyone can help me out, please help me out.
“They told me to go find it myself, so I’ll have to go find it myself. That’s what happened, that’s what I asked him.
“When I asked where I can get a nice bottle of Pinotage from, he didn’t respond. I might go back and see him later.
“I wouldn’t worry about that because it was such a great game of rugby. Don’t worry about one little conversation about a bottle of red wine in the tunnel.”