Eddie Jones said he “couldn’t be prouder” of his makeshift England team after they withstood a first-half battering to emerge 12-11 victors over South Africa on Saturday and get their November international series off to a morale-boosting start.
England, particularly up front, were missing a host of regulars and spent most of the first half desperately defending as they trailed 8-6 at the interval. However, they found their attacking verve after the break to scrape the win with three penalties by Owen Farrell and one for Elliot Daly.
“They (South Africa) have been together for six months — understand that,” Jones told a news conference. “We’ve had three training runs where we’ve had 15 players together and we put in a performance like that. The players deserve enormous credit. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
England were without Billy and Mako Vunipola, Nathan Hughes, Chris Robshaw and Joe Launchbury but the replacements stood up superbly to the Springbok onslaught — stand-in No.8 Mark Wilson being named man of the match.
“We had a lot of guys new to test rugby or their first cap and the way they stuck in the fight… when you get in those arm wrestles someone going to give and we didn’t give,” Jones said.
“We hung in there long enough and when young guys do that it’s a really good sign of their future in test match rugby.”
Co-captain Dylan Hartley was also delighted with the Alamo defence in the first half, a period during which England failed to once get into the Springbok 22.
“It’s not always scoring points that win you games it can be defence and there were a couple of key moments where we were under the pump but came out of the other side – which is really rewarding and won us the game,” Hartley said.
Arguably the biggest moment of all, though, came after most of the crowd had risen to acclaim what they thought was England’s victory.
Australian referee Angus Gardner called for the TMO to rule on a crunching tackle by Farrell on Andre Esterhuizen — eventually deciding that the flyhalf had made enough of an effort to extend an arm to be deemed legal.
He still faces a possible citing, but Jones was in no mood to worry about potentially losing his most important player for next week’s match against New Zealand.
“You can get cited now for something you did at a party when you were 15,” he said. “I’ve got no idea what can happen.”
South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus was seemingly unimpressed, his dead-pan delivery failing to disguise an answer dripping with sarcasm.
“If it was a shoulder charge the ref would have penalised it but it was a good tackle, haven’t seen Andre tackled back like that for a while,” he said.
“It didn’t upset me. If that’s legal maybe we should all tackle like that. It was very effective and something we should try to practise.”
On his team’s failure to turn dominance into a victory, Erasmus said: “We did a lot well but there were two obvious things we didn’t – finish our opportunities and our discipline.
“We missed Faf (de Klerk) as we always do but I thought the two nines didn’t do badly and we didn’t lose because of inexperience.”
De Klerk and several others were absent because the game fell outside the international window but will be back to face France next week.
Erasmus said key lock Eben Etzebeth will miss that game and potentially the rest of the tour after suffering an ankle injury early in the second half.