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Fractions and margins

Sadly, it wasn’t to be.

England gave 100% on Saturday night, but it wasn’t enough against a South Africa side which was ultimately too strong and too well organised. 15-6 was perhaps a little unkind to England, but there was little doubt that the Springboks had been the better side and were worthy world champions.

Like any good sporting competition, this match was won and lost by the finest of margins. Some tight refereeing decisions certainly went South Africa’s way; in particular, an obstruction against Bryan Habana that wasn’t given, and one by Mark Cueto a couple of minutes later that was. Cueto’s ‘try’ early in the second half was – correctly – chalked off by the television match official who spotted his foot brushing the touchline before he touched the ball down in the corner.

But to blame the defeat wholly on marginal officiating decisions is to miss the point. England had squeaked through the quarter and semi-finals against Australia and France by the finest of margins – Stirling Mortlock’s late penalty miss, Joe Worsley’s tap tackle on Vincent Clerc which prevented a certain try – so what goes around has to eventually come around.

For all England’s passion and heart, the truth was they never looked able to either mount sustained pressure or to provide the flash of inspiration to scythe through the South African defences. Only once – Mathew Tait’s thrilling line break which resulted in the try that never was – did they look capable of scoring a try.

And the reason for that was all too obvious from the opening minutes of the game, as the Springboks twice won the ball from England lineouts. They would steal seven in all (and disrupt several others), while winning all 13 of their own, starving England of the vital oxygen of territory and momentum from which they could have launched a serious threat. England ultimately had the lion’s share of both possession (55%) and territory (57%), and spent twice as long in South Africa’s 22 as they did defending their own. But they never managed to gain control in the critical areas where they could really hurt the Springboks.

Not that it was all doom and gloom, of course: on the contrary, there was much to be proud of. This was a vastly better side to the one which surrendered so meekly, 36-0, to the same opponents just five weeks before. The tournament’s most dangerous try-scorer, Bryan Habana, was a non-factor offensively, and as a team South Africa rarely threatened England’s try line. And there were England heroes all over the pitch, from the man-mountain that is Andrew Sheridan to Tait’s thrilling run to the unflinching crunching tackles regularly administered by Jonny Wilkinson.

England finished the tournament disappointed, but with their heads rightfully held high. They gave absolutely everything. With the rub of the green, they might even have won. But it just wasn’t to be.

Ultimately, Brian Ashton’s team couldn’t quite deliver the fairy-tale ending. But nonetheless it was quite a story.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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