London (AP) — One way or another, Owen Farrell was going to be the decisive factor in a tense finale between England and South Africa.
The England flyhalf was relieved it was his late penalty, and not a disputed tackle, that turned out to be the decisive moment in a 12-11 win over the Springboks at Twickenham on Saturday.
Farrell’s kick put England ahead in the 73rd minute. His counterpart Handre Pollard had a chance to regain the lead four minutes from the end but his shot glanced off the right post.
The finish was made more dramatic in the final seconds when the Television Match Official was consulted over a Farrell tackle on Andre Esterhuizen. But it was deemed just fair enough, and England held on for a morale-boosting victory ahead of fixtures against New Zealand, Japan, and Australia.
“It’s hard to keep your arms round when someone’s running that hard but thankfully there was a bit of common sense,” Farrell said.
South Africa scored the only try through Sibusiso Nkosi but an 8-6 halftime lead didn’t reflect their total dominance as turnovers from strong attacking positions helped England remain in contention despite Eddie Jones’ side not touching the ball inside the Springboks’ 22 during the entire opening period.
Two Farrell penalties kept England in touch before a long-range Elliot Daly kick gave the home side their first lead after the break.
South Africa went back in front through Pollard 12 minutes from the end, but he failed to repeat the feat after Farrell’s last penalty kick.
With England playing their first test since losing a three-test series to the Springboks in June and missing key players through injury, a lack of cohesion was evident in the first half.
South Africa, who beat New Zealand in the recently finished Rugby Championship, were sharp from the outset and controlled the game via the boot of scrumhalf Ivan van Zyl.
England were pinned back and lock Maro Itoje was sin-binned.
However, the first of two overthrown lineouts in attacking positions by South Africa hooker Malcolm Marx helped England to emerge from Itoje’s 10-minute absence on level terms.
“Those are the big moments that won us the game,” England co-captain Dylan Hartley said. “It’s not always scoring points that win you games, defense can, too.”
South Africa finally struck in the 34th after Nkosi scored out wide following a break from center Damian de Allende. Pollard was unable to convert, and another Farrell penalty kept England within two points, despite the Springboks having had two-thirds of the possession.
“It was a frustrating test match,” South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus said. “There’s certainly a lot of things that we did well but then obviously there were the two obvious things that we didn’t do well – finish the opportunities and our discipline.”