Too often in the past northern hemisphere sides have capitulated in the final test on tour (see Ireland's effort in Hamilton, NZ as just one example of many). Drained physically and emotionally, some perhaps have been guilty of looking forward to time on the beach with the family after a long hard season. England though did not suffer from these frailties. England in fact were defiant.
Stuart Lancaster remarked prior to the tour quite vocally that he had discussed with the players how the season didn't end after the Aviva Premiership final. It seems he struck a chord with the players. The young squad continued with his hard-nosed attitude approaching the third test, despite finding themselves on the receiving end of an unassailable 2-0 scoreline.
They notably picked up their intensity at the contact area and the breakdown, while their defensive attitude was magnificent. One could argue that towards the end of the match they were even gaining ascendency, both in the collisions and in the scrum. A few more phases with the ball in hand, a little more composure after the hooter and Owen Farrell may well have won the third test with a drop goal. As it was though, his attempt strayed horribly wide, they didn't win and they will be considered a work in progress.
Defects a-plenty, but England show promise
England have some notable defects still to iron out in their game, no-one is denying this. There attack still looks a little ponderous at times, maybe even confused, but crucially it is improving. When you compare their efforts against South Africa with their first two games in the 2012 Six Nations against Scotland and Italy, one can clearly see a steady improvement under the guidance of Lancaster and his coaches.
We are however seeing a strong spine forming, with a whole lot of talent. The newcomers are young, humble, hungry and significantly carry huge potential. Whisper it quietly but four years of experience for this young group with the addition of some new players sporadically throughout and England could be challenging when the Rugby World Cup returns to it's shores in 2015. This talent needs to be harnessed for this to be the case though.
Youngsters show no fear
At scrum-half, one can take one's pick from either Ben Youngs or Danny Care who were both superb in their showings in the England jersey, helping instigate most of England's most sucessful forrays into South African territory. Both arguably won their battles with Springboks' 9, Francois Houggard.
Distribution and creativity remain a worry for England, but there is hope on the horizon. Creativity, or rather England's lack of it, has often been associated with a lack of balance in the midfield. It seems however that England may have struck gold with the introduction of young Alex Goode at fullback.
|Alex Goode impressed|
That ability could take the pressure off Manu Tuilagi at 12, who for all his destructiveness in attack, still has a limited passing game. This is not to say it won't improve over time. Ma'a Nonu of the All Blacks was similarly constrained a few years ago but developed his game through hard work and now is one of the best passers in the country. For now though, Goode's presence could help in that regard.
Other's such as Jonothan Joseph and Mike Brown also showed glimpes of their talent and one suspects both will be mainstays in the squad over the next few years. There is of course young George Ford sitting at home too; the IRB's young player of the year in 2012.
Graham Rowntree building a fearsome pack
As for the forwards, they had a rude awakening in the first couple of tests, being forced into fighting back after early onslaughts from a ferocious Springbok pack. They improved as the tour went on though and they seem to have a base to be very competitive. The props in particular return with their repuatations enhanced. Alex Corbisiero and Joe Marler were combative and showed a huge desire to mix it with the beefy South African front row. I was mightily impressed with their efforts. If you can compete with South Africa physically, you can compete with anyone.
|Cole a formiddable prospect|
Much like Sam Warburton's emergence for Wales last year, the tight head prop has become a player which you can hang your hat on. His displays simply scream out ' follow me guys'.
One shouldn't forget the performances of Exeter Chief's backrower Tom Johnson either or the Highlanders nomadic, enigmatic 'brand' James Haskell who both added steel and were influential in securing the draw in Port Elizabeth. Thomas 'the Tank' Waldrom also defied his critics with an accomplished performance.
So, England may be returning home with a 2-0 loss in the record books, but they certainly won't return dispirited. Who knows, they may even be licking their lips in anticipation of having another crack at the big boys this Autumn at Twickenham. It was certainly no 'Tour from Hell'.
What did you make of England's series with South Africa?
Do you have faith in Lancaster and his coaches?
Who was your standout English player over the three tests?