An 80th-minute penalty from Marcus Smith earned England a famous victory over South Africa in a dramatic rerun of the 2019 Rugby World Cup final. The world champions had looked poised to edge an extraordinary game before the visiting replacement Francois Steyn was penalised in front of his own posts in the final minute and Smith stepped up to seal a breathless win.
A see-sawing game which saw England surge into an early 11-point lead before losing Manu Tuilagi to injury still hung in the balance deep in the final quarter after a breakaway try from England’s replacement Raffi Quirke had briefly looked to have snatched victory with 15 minutes left. A long-range penalty from the vastly-experienced Steyn with six minutes left appeared to have done the same for a 14-man Springbok side, with their captain Siya Kolisi, in the sin-bin, before the final late twist.
The game was barely six minutes old when England, looking aggressive and positive, made their early possession and territory count. Once the ball had been moved left and a miss pass from Henry Slade had fetched up in Tuilagi’s hands there was never going to be any stopping the big man who, with Jesse Kriel having overcommitted in defence, rampaged over past Pollard’s despairing last-gasp tackle.
Sadly it was to be Tuilagi’s last contribution, the centre walking disconsolately away after injuring himself in the process. England, though, were in no mood to retreat back into their shells. Again they stretched the visiting defence out wide and from a ruck less than 10 metres out Ben Youngs fed his Leicester teammate and fellow son of Norfolk, Freddie Steward, who crashed over past Cobus Reinach and Kolisi. Smith again coolly slotted the tricky conversion and, at 14-3 up, England were flying.
They were also enjoying some joy at the scrums where Andrew Brace had clearly not been reading all the pre-game column inches about South Africa’s respected set-piece. Gradually, though, the visitors began to compose themselves and work their way back into the contest. Pollard, who scored 22 points in the Springboks’ World Cup final triumph in Japan, slotted four well-struck penalties from a range of angles and distances to remind England of the importance of keeping their discipline.
With referee Brace also keeping a close eye on the breakdown some of the defensive hits on both sides were huge, not least a full frontal tackle by Ox Nché on his opposite number Bevan Rodd. England’s clutch of inexperienced forwards, though, could be proud of their efforts and the hosts fully deserved their 17-12 half-time advantage.
South Africa, though, have made an art form of not panicking and finishing games strongly. The first half stats may not have been pretty – when was the last time South Africa failed to win a single first-half scrum or collectively beat just four defenders? – but with their “Bomb Squad” limbering up on the touchline there was nil sense of premature English triumphalism in the air.
The hosts were lucky to escape when Kolisi failed to put Kriel away after brilliant approach work from De Allende and Pollard, having previously nailed everything, suddenly contrived to miss two kickable penalties. There was another huge roar to greet the arrival of Joe Marler in place Bevan Rodd and Steward at full-back was having another outstanding afternoon.
South Africa, though, appeared to have found their second wind as the game entered its decisive phase. A fifth Pollard penalty brought them back to within two points and only a last-gasp smother tackle from the replacement Max Malins prevented Kwagga Smith from putting the Boks ahead for the first time.
With the pressure and penalty count both rising, however, Alex Dombrandt was adjudged offside at a ruck in front of the posts and Elton Jantjes, Pollard’s replacement, slotted the easy kick to make it 18-17. Did England have a response in them? The answer was an emphatic “yes” as Henry Slade slid Marchant through a midfield gap from first-phase lineout ball and the speedy Quirke raced 30 metres for a dream first Test try.
Still, though, the drama was not over as South Africa, with advantage being played close to the line, swung the ball left and the prolific Makazole Mapimpi touched down his 20th try in 25 Tests. Jantjes could not land the conversion but with six minutes left up stepped the vastly experienced Steyn for what he must have thought was the decisive act. Little did he know what was still to come.