Owen Farrell’s nerveless penalty handed England a tense 12-11 win against South Africa as Eddie Jones’ men made a perfect start to the Autumn Internationals.
The fly-half, promoted to co-captain this month alongside Dylan Hartley, converted from wide on the left with seven minutes to go to hand England a one-point win and inject some momentum ahead of next week’s clash with New Zealand.
In a game of fine margins, it came down to two kicks at goal with Farrell nailing his for England before Handre Pollard missed minutes later for South Africa, an effort which could have won them the game.
Farrell ended with three penalties, with Elliot Daly kicking the other in a match that saw just one try – Sbu Nkosi’s first-half effort for the Springboks.
With just three months to go until the 2019 Six Nations, the Northern Hemisphere’s giants are all bidding to find form and for England this is a priceless win after a tough 2018.
England’s rise under head coach Jones had been serene since he arrived in 2015, with back-to-back Six Nations titles, including the 2016 Grand Slam, and a 3-0 whitewash in Australia banishing memories of the 2015 World Cup.
But 2018 has been trickier. A fifth-place finish in the Six Nations was followed by a 2-1 summer defeat to South Africa, increasing the pressure heading into a World Cup year.
The Australian responded by ringing the changes, some enforced by injury, others not, but the first half was a tense and tight affair with South Africa controlling large parts of it.
The Springboks’ power was widely talked about in the build-up to this match and the Twickenham faithful quickly discovered why – with Eben Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen particularly effective.
But the visitors could not translate their dominance of territory and possession into points, with England’s defence impressively resolute.
Maro Itoje’s 15th-minute sin-bin for killing the ball on his own five-metre line looked to have given South Africa a gift-wrapped window in which to attack the scoreboard but England brilliantly held firm – and even scored a penalty of their own through Farrell to cancel out Pollard’s early effort.
But South Africa have a winning record at Twickenham and are fresh from beating New Zealand in the Rugby Championship, so their quality was inevitably going to come through.
Eventually they did breach England’s defence, with wing Nkosi finishing off in the corner following superb hands from Aphiwe Dyantyi and Warren Whiteley.
Farrell reduced the gap to 8-6 at the break with a second penalty and they came out in the second half full of vim and vigour – taking the lead in the 51st-minute through a booming Daly penalty from half-way.
Twickenham responded and England, finally with some momentum, attacked with gusto and only a mis-placed pass from Daly prevented Jonny May from scoring in the corner.
Jones rang the changes, with Chris Ashton back in an England jersey for the first time since 2014 but South Africa regained the lead through another Pollard penalty.
England almost hit back immediately, with Brad Shields just a couple of yards away from scoring down the left but Farrell restored the lead seven minutes from time with a superb penalty from wide on the left following a collapsed scrum.
However, Pollard had the chance to win it with a penalty that was further out than Farrell’s but more central, however it kissed the right-hand post on its way by – and Jones punched the air with delight at full time.