England have not had much to celebrate on their South African tour but their midweek dirt-trackers did a bit of flag-waving in Potchefstroom on Tuesday. A hat-trick of tries from Bath's Nick Abendanon and a brace for Gloucester's Jonny May were the highlights of a hard-earned victory over decent opponents, marred only by a nasty first-half head knock suffered by the Harlequins winger Ugo Monye.
Stuart Lancaster derived more satisfaction from this game than he did in Kimberley last week, despite another rocky third quarter and four tries for the home side. Tom Youngs enjoyed a rumbustious debut at this level, Ben Morgan displayed more energy and purpose and Carl Fearns also made an impact in the back-row. Behind the scrum May showed the pace and elusive ability they love at Kingsholm while Christian Wade was lively once again.
Abendanon and May, who arrived only at the weekend as cover for the injured George Lowe, had clearly decided to make the most of their late call-ups to this squad. The former had originally travelled to South Africa on holiday to catch up with members of his family and attend the wedding of his clubmate Pieter Dixon. Looking fully at ease on the flatlands of the old Western Transvaal, now home to the Leopards Rugby Union, he had three tries safely tucked away by the 36th minute, giving England a handy cushion for which they were ultimately grateful.
If they did finally hit a half-century of points, the occasion will still have broadened some minds in England's party. Grass the colour of sand, braii smoke drifting across the field, mesh fences surrounding the playing area and rusting floodlight pylons make for a different matchday experience than Twickenham could ever offer. Lancaster is keen on players who can ignore such distractions and show themselves to be men for all seasons and surroundings.
A pre-game selection of country and western favourites sung in Afrikaans also served to motivate the hosts and remind their visitors they had ventured into a no-frills environment. A scuffle between the home captain, JW Jonker, and Jordan Turner-Hall cost England an early three points and an excellent try from the local centre Joubert Engelbrecht swiftly followed. Abendanon replied with the first of his tries, a well-worked effort set up by Hodgson and Wade, before the game was held up for a lengthy period to allow Monye to be treated.
The 29-year-old winger, playing his first game of the tour, was knocked unconscious when his head collided with the hip of the home scrum-half Shaun Venter in the 27th minute and he had to be taken to hospital. Happily, having missed the second Test with hamstring trouble, there was no serious damage. "He's fine, albeit a bit groggy," reported Lancaster.
Gradually, though, England reasserted control, Abendanon darting through the middle for his second and then profiting from the chasing work of the distinctly rapid May. A 31-10 interval lead should have ensured a comfortable jog to the finishing line but two tries by the nippy Venter made England pay for the sin-binning of Jamie Gibson for a late tackle on the winger Deon Scholtz.
At 31-24 things looked rather less cosy, with substitutions also disrupting English rhythm. They were duly indebted to May for his two sharp finishes, Anthony Allen also making the scoresheet before a penalty try rounded off the evening. "Overall I thought it was better than the previous week," said Lancaster. "It was important to put in a positive performance and I thought there was more intensity and shape to what we did." England had earlier won a few more new friends with a local community visit which saw Chris Robshaw gamely holding a tackle bag despite his broken thumb. No one can accuse this England squad of being poor ambassadors for their country.
Northern Barbarians Roos (Pumas); Demas (Pumas), Jonker (Pumas, capt), Engelbrecht (Leopards), Scholtz (Pumas); Van Wyk (Pumas), Venter (Pumas); Uys (Leopards), Van Jaarsveld (Pumas), Buys (Pumas), Mathee (Pumas), Van der Walt (Pumas), Bouwer (Pumas), Lusaseni (Leopards), Steyn (Griffons). Replacements Van der Westhuizen (Pumas), for Van Jaarsveld, 68.
Tries Engelbrecht, Venter 2, Scholtz. Cons Roos 4. Pen Roos.
England Abendanon (Bath); Wade (London Wasps), Allen (Leicester), Turner-Hall (Harlequins), Monye (Harlequins); Hodgson (Saracens), L Dickson (Northampton); Mullan (Worcester), T Youngs (Leicester), Doran-Jones (Northampton), Kitchener (Leicester), Robson (Harlequins, capt), Gibson (London Irish), Fearns (Bath), Morgan (Scarlets). Replacements Gray (Harlequins) for T Youngs, 57 , Harden (Gloucester) for Doran-Jones, 68, Botha (Saracens) for Kitchener, 57, K Dickson (Harlequins) for L Dickson, h-t, Strettle (Harlequins) for Wade, 68, May (Gloucester) for Monye, 27.
Tries Abendanon 3, Morgan, May 2, Allen, penalty try. Cons Hodgson 7. Pen Hodgson. Sin-bin Gibson 54.
Referee M Lawrence (SA). Attendance 6,887.
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