England prepare to take on South Africa at Twickenham on Saturday, our sports editor, Peter Burns, picks some highlights from Behind the Rose: Playing Rugby for England. In this extract England team players past and present reflect on some of their encounters against the mighty Springboks.
Unfortunately, I was in the first English side ever to lose a match at Twickenham and this was against the South Africans, largely caused by two enormous penalty goals kicked by Morkel. Both were for minor offences, and I have always thought it quite wrong that a kick in such circumstances should be worth as much as a try.
Rugby football is supposed to be a team game, but winning games by penalty goals is often entirely due to one man. Norman Wodehouse was [our] captain, and when we scored a try under the South Africans’ post he took the kick and missed. I naturally was disgusted as I had been asked by the selection committee to go to Twickenham the day before and practise place-kicks. We won the Triple Crown that year, beating Wales at Cardiff [for] the first time.
Of brilliant individual bursts, those who saw it will single out one of Poulton-Palmer’s in the England and South Africa match of 1913. Receiving the ball well inside his own half-way, Palmer commenced to ‘hare’ for the touchline. Then he seemed to stop, and his opponents, in doubt whether he was going to kick or to pass to his wing, dashed at various angles to where danger seemed to threaten.
Having drawn off the Springboks on to the wrong trail, a change of foot and one of his own inimitable swerves saw him flying across the face and almost within touch of the nearest foes. Then a feint – and a dodge – and he was through, with only, so it seemed, the [full-]back to pass. Morkel had no chance, and the roar of 35,000 voices urged the runner on to the unmarked goal-line.
The path, however, was not quite clear, for the speedy Stegmann was doing his utmost to cut off England’s centre. Another slight change of direction had to be undertaken, and this brought danger from another quarter. The race now was agonising in its excitement, but with Lowe in attendance it looked a certain try. It was not, however, to be.
Three or four yards from his destination Palmer was overtaken, and a splendid tackle spoilt his attempt at passing. It was a sad pity for England that success did not attend him. For thrilling sensationalism this run lives almost by itself in the football of very recent years.
The season was made memorable by the visit of the South African team. You feel there must be something extraordinary about the climate of South Africa, when you are easily given twenty yards in a hundred by a McHardy or a Stegmann, when you see the ball propelled infinite distances with perfect accuracy by a Morkel, and when you feel the weight of a Morkel, a Van Vuuren, or a Shum deposited on your chest.
1969 Autumn Test
I took over as captain when Bob Hiller went off with about ten minutes to go in the match against South Africa and we spent the entire time camped in our 25 under the old North Stand. We won the game but we were hanging on at the end. I only had one decision to make during my entire ‘reign’ as England captain and that came at a scrum right on our line when somebody else had gone off injured and we were temporarily down to seven men in the pack. As we went down to try and resist a pushover try I got a tap on my shoulder; it was Chris Wardlow, the big centre from Cumbria, and he asked, ‘Can I help?’
I said, ‘We will make our own arrangements thanks very much.’ A bit ungracious perhaps, but we were in the zone, just concentrating on keeping the Boks at bay. Sorry Chris, you didn’t deserve that, it was a nice thought!
It was my first match as England captain and the importance of the win caught me by surprise. I’m not sure many of us realised at the time that it was England’s first win over the Boks but it was definitely a big boost. When I look back on my England career that was the highlight right there, certainly from a team point of view. It was a pretty good team we fielded that day. Alas it wasn’t long before the selectors started to split the team up again.
Some of the boys insist they didn’t know it was England’s first win over the Boks but that must be the crew who never read the newspapers! I was very well aware of our poor record against them and felt very nervous – in a good way – but also a bit daunted before the fixture. What was it about these southern hemisphere teams that made them into supermen and apparently unbeatable?
It was a hell of game, incredibly physical and intense, and a bit of an overlooked classic in my opinion.
1972 summer tour
South Africa was my first England call-up, as a replacement after Lionel Weston was injured. I was called out for the last week, and sat on the bench for the Test. For me it was fantastic. I’d never been on a plane before, and I’d never been to a place like South Africa. I was star-struck – I had no idea how big rugby was out there and the crowd of 80,000 people at Ellis Park just blew me away.
South Africa were the unofficial world champions, but we went into it thinking if we brought out our best game we could win. In our own minds we were not underdogs because it had been such a good tour that each one of us was confident. South Africa did not play well that sunny afternoon, but we didn’t allow them to play well.
I remember putting Alan Morley through for his try – I wouldn’t have wanted to play anywhere else but scrum-half because you are everywhere. I used to take quick taps a lot, and I liked to play at pace and set people up by getting them quick ball.
That win over South Africa in Johannesburg was a typical English backs-against-the-wall reaction. There was a realisation that they were a better organised side, so we had to restrict their possession – and we did that.
South Africa’s lethal weapon was Joggie Jansen, a huge centre, but Jeremy Janion was also a big lad. He was asked to stand up to Jansen, and he did. Our guys cut them down. Sam Doble at fullback was a brilliant kicker, and at altitude he kicked everything, while Jan Webster was a very lively scrum-half – he didn’t have the pass, but he was very jinky and linked well with the back-row. He also had a very good box-kick.
Pre-Test we were told by the media in South Africa, ‘You try to tackle Joggie Jansen and you will break your arm.’ They didn’t seem to register that we were five games unbeaten, or that we had trained together for three weeks.
The remarkable thing about my try was that there is a photo in which you can see the touch judge and the referee at the moment I grounded the ball and was hit into the corner flag by their fullback, Carlson. All the officials in the Test were South Africans, and it was a close enough call that they could have ruled I was in touch. Thinking back I should probably have scored three that day – if I’d been a little more experienced I could have turned one or two more chances into tries. However, the game went so quickly that it is the only incident I can remember.
After the match I ran off the pitch to get my tour shirt with my opposite number, Jan Muller, and when I went back into the changing room the others were all sat there with their heads in their hands. There was just sheer relief and disbelief, and tears in their eyes at that result after such a horror season.
1997 Autumn Test
I remember thinking when we played the Springboks in November ’97 later how much bigger and more powerful than us the South Africans seemed that day. Perhaps it’s a trick your mind plays on you when you are beaten, but it certainly felt a little like boys against men… If we gained anything that afternoon, it was the realisation that we had a vast amount of work to do if we were going to turn the tables on the southern hemisphere and start bullying them.
1998 Tour of Hell
At the end of my first season we made the notorious Tour from Hell. I’m hugely proud of my overall results by the time I finished, but you go through those early fixtures and you say, ‘No sane person would ever pick those fixtures.’ It was just madness – but that was how madly things were run with England. No one had ever tried to do a tour like that before and no one ever will again.
Whoever drew up the itinerary had given no thought to the enormity of the challenge.
I thought I was getting somewhere in the game until I went on that tour. It was as if someone was saying to me: ‘You think you’ve done well, but hold on. You’ve got a long way to go to even get close to this level.’ I raised my standards. In one respect I spent years trying to distance myself from the experience, but I have always maintained that it taught me more than anything else I have gone through, or ever will.
For some players it was a step too far and they were never seen again. It was a really tough tour mentally, and we were getting abuse left right and centre from the media. But it was part of the contract, and some came through it to greater things.
We never looked back. Less than two years later we went back and beat South Africa in Bloemfontein. The Tour of Hell was really the making of me. And it was the making of many of the players.
1999 World Cup
I remember in the quarter-final just craning my neck time after time as Jannie de Beer kicked all those drop-goals – it was almost like watching it in slow motion as they flew over your head. Then I remember Os du Randt, who had always been a bit of an idol of mine. I was up against him in the scrum and we did all right – we didn’t have much trouble at all up front. But he really hit me. I remember going back to pick up the ball and, as I stood up, he hit me. I thought my body had snapped in half.
I did write once that I got the fly-half selection wrong, that I should not have switched Wilkinson and brought in Paul Grayson for the quarter-final at fly-half. But I am not sure I actually believe that myself. It wouldn’t have made any difference.
It was a sad end to our 1999 tournament. You can try and find all the positives you want but you can’t get rid of the feeling that you’re leaving and the big boys are getting on with it. We wanted to be among them but we weren’t good enough, and that hurt.
When a guy has a freak day – and that’s what it was – there is not a lot you can do about it. We had looked at De Beer, of course, and knew he was a fine kicker. But five drop-goals in half an hour. No-one saw that coming.
Clive never let us forget how we felt on the journey home from Paris. Any booklet he produced for us carried photos of us at the end of that game and there was one shot of Backy crouching down on all fours, utterly distraught. Another shot showed Johnno and I looking hopelessly over our shoulders at a De Beer drop-goal as it flew between the posts. Clive touched a raw nerve and when he saw us wince with pain, he touched it again and again.
I was a bench player but it was still the start of the Clive Woodward era. I was fighting for the No. 12 shirt with Will Greenwood. Although we lost in the quarter-final to South Africa, the seeds were beginning to be sown. People forget that the team who won the World Cup were together for six years. After that 1999 quarter-final defeat to the Springboks there were the three Grand Slam losses, and I honestly believe if we had not lost those games when we did – and learned what we did – then we would never have won the World Cup in 2003.
2000 summer tour
We started to out-think sides, as well as using our physicality to establish dominance up front. The big turning point for the team was the tour to South Africa in the summer of 2000. After losing the first Test in Pretoria, we showed real steel to win the second Test in Bloemfontein. After 2000 we matched the southern hemisphere sides for physicality, and that tour was a turning point.
I went to the South African changing room after the first Test and was shocked by what I saw. There were bodies everywhere, bandages being taken off, ice-packs on knees and heads, players having wounds checked and everyone too shattered to talk… They were completely gone whereas I felt we still had 20 to 30 per cent of our energy left. At that moment I knew we would take these guys the following week. I also knew that in their bruised and smashed state, they now respected us. With that thought came the certainty that we were no longer the old England.
The 2000 tour to South Africa was a big moment for the squad. Arguably we should have won that first game in South Africa but Bloemfontein in the second Test was massive. For me, the big heroes were Baron and Fran, who supported me, who allowed me to keep developing the team for another crack at the World Cup.
Without doubt, it was a turning point in the development of the team. We had come to South Africa and drawn the Test series 1–1 but we all knew we should have won it 2–0. That tour convinced us all that Clive was the right man.
2003 World Cup
The most important game I played for England was probably that pool game against South Africa. My back was not great and considering that I couldn’t touch my toes before the game, I played really well. There was a crucial moment in the first half when Will Greenwood forgot the rules and failed to touch the ball down in the in-goal area after a missed kick. That gave South Africa a scrum near our line and when van der Westhuizen got the ball, I managed to stop him and turn the ball over. It meant that we were level 6-6 at half-time and we’d stopped South Africa getting any momentum. In the second half, we took our chances.
Lewis Moody set off like a demented cheetah and I cantered behind him waiting to feed off any scraps. Sure enough, Mongo [Moody] lunged at Louis Koen, smashed down the kick and the ball squirted backwards towards the South African line. By now I had a 15-yard start on everyone else and I knew that if I stayed cool I was going to score.
It was quite late at night and there was dew so figuring the ball would go skidding along the surface quite smoothly, I aimed to summon up every last iota of my modest football talent and side-foot it over the line. I reached it first with a gang of 15 Springboks at my back.
I had given everything I had against South Africa. I could not have wrung one more ounce out of myself and even though we had won, it hadn’t gone that well for me. God, it can be demoralising because you’ve got to go back and face your team-mates. There was no hiding place in the squad. So you front up, and I suppose that is why not everyone plays for England.
2006 Autumn Test
Look at the two games we played against South Africa back-to-back in 2006. Jake White was under huge pressure, and so was Robbo, and the second game was one where everyone was saying that the coach who lost would get the sack. We were 14-3 up going into the last ten minutes of the first half and had just scored. I was telling everyone, ‘Just give 100 per cent concentration and don’t give them a sniff.’ They kicked off long and we went back under our posts and gave them a scrum and they scored. We kicked off, they came back and we gave them a penalty and they were in front at half-time. That was where we were as a side. We could play well but it was built on flaky foundations and when the pressure came on we did not have belief.
We should have won that match but there is a fine line between winning and losing, and confidence is a big part of getting you over the line. After 35 minutes of that game Jake White was gone – he was writing his resignation letter – and we let them back into the game. How can coaches be responsible for things like that? That is really down to the players.
2007 World Cup
I have always been disappointed in how we have been described after the pool game against South Africa. We were incredibly depressed about being described as the worst defending champions ever. During the game I thought we had got them because, as a forward pack, we were very confident against them. I wondered what we could have done differently. The bounce of the ball did not go our way and Fourie du Preez had a blinder at scrum-half. We could not say we were awful in any department. The Springboks just exploited every mistake we made.
By hook or by crook we reached the final, where once again we came unstuck against South Africa, although our performance was much better than it had been just over a month earlier. Had the Mark Cueto ‘try’ been given early in the second half who knows, things might have been different. You can never be satisfied with defeat, but if someone had offered me a place in the final after our group matches I would have gladly taken it.
I remember at the time, when I flew home, my left foot was pretty much on the front of every newspaper. It was incredible. I remember thinking was it a good thing or a bad thing that it was not given? I was disappointed it was not given but on the other hand it got my name out there and it could lead to other opportunities. I remember thinking that it would be a ‘flash in the pan’ and people would talk about it for a month or two. But all these years later, I must get asked at least once or twice a week.
You know, when I look back on 2007 it is probably with more fondness than 2003. Playing for England has meant everything to me – and that’s not saying Gloucester or Wasps or the Lions weren’t important – but to represent your country and to be able to sing your national anthem before playing the greatest team sport in the World Cup is unbeatable.
Things did get bad on the field but then you have a choice. You can either go home, or you can do something about it. We didn’t let ourselves down, we fought to the very end, and the sense of disappointment was outweighed by a sense of pride that we had done everything that we possibly could.
It was totally different to 2003. My God, I felt so proud of everybody, the players, the coaches, the physios, everyone in the group.
Some very strange things happen in sport. You write people off at your peril. There’s a little spark inside me which died the day I knew I would never be able to do that again, you can’t replace it, I wouldn’t want to try to replace it but my God I look back with so many wonderful, wonderful memories of coaches, of fans, of highs and lows that I will always remember. And all I can say is, thank you.
2012 QBE Autumn Test
The decision to kick a late penalty instead of going for the corner against South Africa was mine and I thought potentially we had time to get the points and get back down there, and put ourselves in winning drop-goal or penalty range. But it didn’t come off. We discussed it but I make the calls and, at the end of the day, it was all on me.
The mix up was the first time I’d ever experienced such negativity towards me and made me realise just how much my head is on a stake as captain. Fortunately, we beat New Zealand the following week, so we were all able to move on.