England faced Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in successive weeks in the knockout stages of last year’s World Cup. They vaulted the first two hurdles comfortably but stumbled before the third while Wales, who a few months earlier had won the grand slam, fell to the Springboks and the All Blacks in successive matches.
It was England’s fourth World Cup final, four more than the other home unions put together, but even in the days when they were also-rans in the then Five Nations, victims of selectorial whims, they had a facility to rise against the best that the Celtic nations lacked.
When England toured South Africa this week in 1972, they were, for the first time after a whitewash, the holders of the Five Nations’ wooden spoon, following single-figure home defeats to Wales and Ireland and thumpings in Paris and Edinburgh. They had gone eight matches without a victory and their only successes in the 1970s had been against Ireland home and away.
South Africa had lost one of their previous 14 home matches, to New Zealand in Cape Town in 1970 in a series they won 3-1, and no home union had won there, although there had only been three attempts, by Scotland, Wales and Ireland. And yet, as the England prop Mike Burton said in his autobiography, Never Stay Down, “the lambs to the slaughter became lions”.
England won 18-9 at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, a result that stunned the rugby world with one South African website rating it as the most shocking in the game’s history. They had beaten the Springboks at Twickenham in December 1969 during a tour that became known for the anti-apartheid protests the visitors attracted and none of the four Tests were won.
England’s problems in the early 70s stemmed from selectorial panic, especially behind where half-backs were barely given enough time to get to know each other’s first name. It made them vulnerable to the passion and fervour generated by the Celts who were fuelled by a love of beating the English, but they had the power at forward to take on the more clear-headed southern powerhouses.
That has remained and just as the 1972 victory in Johannesburg and the downing of New Zealand at Eden Park the following year was based on the supremacy at forward, so it was in last year’s World Cup and in the Clive Woodward era when England beat the All Blacks, Springboks and the Wallabies home and away.
England’s front row at Ellis Park was made up of Stack Stevens, John Pullin and Mike Burton, who saw off the challenge with Fran Cotton, Peter Larter and Chris Ralston making up the second row and John Watkins, Andy Ripley and Tony Neary forming the loose trio: six of them started the following year against New Zealand and Australia with Cotton replacing Burton and Roger Uttley coming in for Larter.
England served notice on South Africa by winning five and drawing one of their six matches in the build-up to the Test. Burton said he had previously had reservations about some of his teammates, not least Larter and Ralston who, he reckoned, lacked the devil for Test rugby.
“My initial feelings were proved wrong,” he said. “Larter was a revelation to me: he had bottle and proved it. I told him so. I grew to rate Ralston and enjoy his company. I had doubts before the tour whether we had what it took to beat the Springboks. A key man behind the scrum was Jeremy Paul Aubrey George from Bedford – all those names and a home counties club were hardly likely to give him an immediate place in my affections, but he kept South Africa’s trump card, Joggie Jansen, out of the game.”
England were captained by Pullin, who was also to lead them to victory against New Zealand and Australia, the quietly spoken Bristol hooker who the previous summer had been part of the Lions’ front row in New Zealand. “He was inspiring in his way,” said Burton. “He was single-minded and determined but he never made a fuss or involved himself in a fracas on the field. When he spoke to the team, he always looked people in the eye. He was a man’s man.”
Alan Morley’s try and the boot of Sam Doble took England to victory but, in Burton’s words, they left a lot of their determination and attitude in South Africa when they left. They lost their next three matches, although they pushed New Zealand hard at Twickenham, and their away record in the championship was extended to three victories in 19 matches.
So, when England went to New Zealand in 1973, again little was expected of them. Their last Test there, at Christchurch in 1963, created history: they lost 9-6, Don Clarke’s 65-yard goal from a mark settling the issue late on, the last time such a score was made in a match between top-tier nations.
In a tour hastily arranged and at the end of the summer because a planned trip to Argentina was called off after terrorist threats, they warmed up with a one-point victory over Fiji before losing to Taranaki, Wellington and Canterbury. The All Blacks had not lost at Eden Park since 1959, but after opting to take first use of the strong wind they only led by four points at half-time.
Tries by Stevens and Neary gave England a 16-10 victory and watching the highlights back is to see scrums quickly and unfussily formed and Cotton selling two dummies before a long kick downfield, but again the victory was not built on. Australia were beaten two months later, but England only won two of their next 12 Five Nations matches and did not succeed on the road again until 1977.
Yet it was in those two victories in the toughest rugby countries of all that the seeds of World Cup campaigns were sown. “If any of you come off the field thinking there was something else you could have done which you did not do and which would have helped the team,” said Pullin before Ellis Park, “you will know it when you put your head on the pillow tonight.” It could have been Martin Johnson talking.
• This is an extract from our weekly rugby union email, the Breakdown. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.