Don’t worry, we’ll be fine – that was the message from England No.8 Billy Vunipola after his side suffered a narrow defeat to South Africa in a thrilling Test match at Ellis Park.
Mike Brown, Elliot Daly and Owen Farrell all crossed in a blistering start by Eddie Jones’ men to lead 24-3 but they could not maintain the pace and South Africa hit back.
Faf de Klerk put in a superb display at scrum-half, while Wasps’ Willie Le Roux scored just before the break to put the Springboks ahead.
Maro Itoje and Jonny May both scored tries late on but South Africa managed to hold on for a 42-39 triumph and England’s losing streak now stands at five matches – including the final three games of the 2018 NatWest 6 Nations.
And while Vunipola was frustrated with aspects of the display, he is adamant there were enough positives for his side to bounce back in the second Test in Bloemfontein next week.
“We probably gave them too much front-foot ball, got too tight around the ruck and they have got dangerous players,” said the back-rower, who made his 35th international appearance and first since facing Ireland in last year’s Championship.
“Especially dangerous is Willie Le Roux, who is always roaming on that blindside. I guess we reacted a bit too late to it but it’s all good, we still could have won that at the end.
“It’s one of those things – I thought we played really well other than the period in the middle when our ill-discipline let them get on top.
“That’s something we can fix and control, so we just have to stay true to ourselves. It was a great occasion and while we don’t like losing, it’s nice to have a strong South African team.
“We’ll be working on our discipline this week. Like the song says – don’t worry, we’ll be fine, we’ll be fine! We always are.”
Flying out of the blocks
After finishing fifth in this year’s NatWest 6 Nations, England were out to prove a point and were at it from the first minute as Daly landed a mammoth penalty from inside his own half.
And it did not take them long to strike the first hammer blow, with Brown shaking off a couple of challenges to power over in the corner.
South Africa were shaken and England did not relent from the re-start as Daly combined superbly with wing May to find space and slide in for a second.
England’s attacking play was cutting the Springboks defence to ribbons and Farrell got on the scoresheet with a third try thanks to a pinpoint George Ford pass.
A shaken South Africa did respond thanks to de Klerk from close range and that helped spark an incredible fightback as they took the half-time lead.
De Klerk helped set up S’busiso Nkosi for two tries before Le Roux crashed over minutes before the break.
Handre Pollard extended the Springboks’ lead to 32-27 and when Mako Vunipola, winning his 50th cap, was shown a yellow card with just over 15 minutes to go, the hosts hit the accelerator – with Aphiwe Dyantyi strolling over.
England refused to go quietly and Itoje reached over to put the ball down despite being under immense pressure from the Springboks defence.
Pollard added another penalty but May scored a stunning try with two minutes to go, cutting in from the right and sprinting clear, yet the Springboks held on for a 42-39 win and England skipper Owen Farrell wants a fast response in the three-match series.
“We got off to a quick start but then a few errors crept in and our discipline probably let us down a lot,” he said. “It gave South Africa a lot of field position and they scored points.
“What we need to make sure is that we stick together, that this makes us better and that this brings the best out of us.
“We can’t go within ourselves now – we’ll watch the footage back and make sure we get the technical bits right.”