Smith’s last-gasp kick gives England thrilling victory over South Africa

Nothing can entirely erase England’s disappointment at losing the 2019 World Cup final but their future is looking ever rosier. Turning over the world champions in the final seconds of a stirring contest in front of a roaring home crowd is never an everyday occurrence and the 80th-minute penalty from Marcus Smith which belatedly settled this extraordinary game was no more than his gallant, persevering side deserved.

Few, if any, teams in international rugby end up on the winning side having conceded 18 penalties to their opponents’ eight but the try count of three to one against the planet’s meanest defence was ultimately the more pertinent statistic. It summed up the see-sawing nature of a contest which both sides appeared to have won and lost on at least a couple of occasions before the wildly dramatic late denouement.

The Springboks, 14-3 down early on, looked to have edged it before the visiting replacement François Steyn was penalised in front of his own posts for catching Smith with a knee on the floor. Having losing Manu Tuilagi to injury after just eight minutes England knew precisely how the vastly experienced Steyn felt: they had just watched him kick a long-range penalty with six minutes left which felt, at the time, as if it might seal the deal.

A storming breakaway try from the England replacement Raffi Quirke with 15 minutes left was another key moment, as was the 76th minute sin-binning of the South Africa skipper, Siya Kolisi, for taking out Joe Marchant in the air. Without him the 14-man Springboks began to fray at the edges, with England’s substituted captain, Courtney Lawes, even running on to the field late on as passions threatened to overflow.

It made for a fabulous sporting ding-dong right from the outset. 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. With Jesse Kriel overcommitting in defence, Tuilagi rampaged over past Handré Pollard’s despairing last-gasp tackle.

Sadly for England 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 fast-rising 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 the referee, 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 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.

But South Africa have made an artform 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 no sense of premature English triumphalism in the air.

The hosts were lucky to escape when Kolisi, crucially as it turned out, failed to put Kriel away after brilliant approach work from Damian 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 of Rodd while 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 late 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 Jantjies, Pollard’s replacement, slotted the easy kick to make it 18-17. Could England respond? The answer was an emphatic “yes” as Slade slid Marchant through a midfield gap from a first-phase lineout ball and the speedy Quirke raced 30 metres for a dream first Test try.

Still the intrigue 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 the fates still had in store.