Eddie Jones insists South Africa used their “get out of jail card” at Ellis Park as England returned to their coastal base to lick their wounds.
A fourth successive Test defeat was registered as the Springboks fought back from a 21-point deficit surrendered inside the first quarter to prevail 42-39 in a mesmerising opening instalment of the series.
It is England’s worst run since 2014 and the pressure is continuing to build after a stunning opening salvo of tries from Mike Brown, Elliot Daly and Owen Farrell was followed by a dramatic collapse, partly induced by the recurring flaw of indiscipline.
England had moved into a scarcely-believable 24-3 lead after only 18 minutes, before Faf de Klerk orchestrated a stunning first-half comeback supported by the brilliance of Willie le Roux that enabled South Africa to take a 29-27 lead into half-time.
Electric debutant S’busiso Nkosi crossed twice to bring Ellis Park to his feet and, in between his two tries, Jones hauled off Nick Isiekwe – the Saracens lock who was making his full debut – and brought on the uncapped Brad Shields.
The second half was dominated by the Springboks, whose customary physicality was matched by a cutting edge in attack overseen by De Klerk and Le Roux, but it was the boot of Handre Pollard that did most of the scoreboard damage through three penalties.
Jones, who was verbally abused by South Africa fans in the tunnel after the match, believes the Springboks had ridden their luck.
“South Africa have used a get out of jail card and sometimes you don’t get that again,” said Jones, whose team dropped to fifth in the global rankings.
“They know they were in one hell of a game. They got home and did well to get home and deserved the victory.
“They’ll take confidence from the result, but we’ll take confidence from this game as well. Not at all will it be hard to pick the players up. The way we played in the first 20 minutes is the way we want to play all the time. This game has set the series up fantastically well.”
While England return to Umhlanga on the Indian Ocean to begin preparations for Saturday’s second match at Free State Stadium, South Africa celebrated a landmark moment in the nation’s history.
As the Springboks’ first black Test captain in their 126-year history, the reign of Siya Kolisi, inset, got off to a scripted start and the meaning of the occasion is not lost on Jones.
“It’s a big moment for the country to have Kolisi as captain and for him to win his first game at Ellis Park, the spiritual homeland of the Springboks,” said Jones. “It’s an enormously symbolic thing for South African rugby and shows that transformation is working. Kolisi will be a good captain, let’s just hope he’s not too good in this series.”
England at least emerged from a pulsating Johannesburg opener without any significant injury concerns, with Tom Curry and Daly suffering minor cramp and a dead leg respectively.
At the top of their agenda will be devising a plan to nullify De Klerk, South Africa’s dynamo of a scrum-half, who thrived off the quick ball presented by his dominant pack. Alongside Wasps full-back Le Roux, the Sale playmaker was a constant menace by loading the bullets for debutant wings Aphiwe Dyantyi and Nkosi to fire.
“Faf was excellent,” Jones said. “When you get front football like he was, he’s a dangerous player. The two wingers look like they run as fast as Usain Bolt. That’s a dangerous back three South Africa have.”
As Jones walked down the tunnel at the end of the Test, some home fans leaned over the railings and verbally insulted him. But the coach played it down afterwards.
“They [South Africa fans] have always got plenty to say. Especially when they win,” said Jones. “I was just asking them where I could get a good bottle of Pinotage. They told me to go find it myself.”