Boks provide reality check for Johnson's England
"Well that wasn't in the script," bemoaned one England supporter as he contemplated a depressing end to an otherwise encouraging autumn series.
"It was like the England of 12 months ago," added Mr Grumpy of Twickenham, and he had a point.
In the lack of discipline and composure, the proliferation of handling errors and the muddled thinking under pressure, England's performance in their 21-11 defeat by South Africa turned back the clock to the darker days of Martin Johnson's managerial regime.
But Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Shontayne Hape, Ben Youngs, Dan Cole and Courtney Lawes hadn't even started a Test 12 months ago.
They are barely out of nappies in international terms, even if they have shown enough already to suggest they will be competing at the highest level for a good while yet.
This was their first exposure to the Springboks however, and it wasn't a pleasant experience.
On a bitterly cold afternoon, England provided little to warm the cockles of another 80,000-plus crowd, receiving a painful lesson in how to win Test matches from a South Africa side who had far too much nous despite being without half their first-choice team.
The crescendo of noise that engulfed Twickenham just before kick-off was replaced by a series of collective groans from the home support as the inevitability of a seventh straight defeat against these opponents dawned.
That England were still in the game at half-time, let alone the 70th minute when the Springboks made victory safe with their second try, was something of a miracle, such was the extent of the visitors' control.
If the hosts could take anything from a match that started promisingly with Tom Croft's break-out but deteriorated badly after the opening quarter, it was their defensive resolve.
Against Australia or New Zealand, England might have been 20 points down by the interval, given the possession and territory enjoyed by the visitors, and how quickly England handed them back the initiative on the rare occasions they did win the ball.
But a combination of a ponderous Springboks midfield initially, a lack of incision out wide, and the hosts' brilliant defence contrived to somehow keep the scores level at 6-6.
One period at the end of the first quarter demonstrated the attitude coursing through this new England. South Africa spent several minutes hammering away at their line, with half-a-dozen charges repelled. When the dam finally appeared to have burst, and Victor Matfield sniffed a try, Lawes denied the Springboks skipper with a superb last-ditch tackle.
England were unfortunate with injuries, with three of their star turns in recent weeks - Chris Ashton, Croft and Toby Flood - suffering calamities in the opening half-hour.
The latter pair were both taken off, depriving England of their most potent line-out weapon and a running threat from fly-half, even if Charlie Hodgson's smart distribution offered hope and his defence stood up well.
Ashton though - despite the concerns of referee George Clancy - stayed on the field, after clattering himself while attempting to tackle Matfield in the seventh minute.
Whether the Northampton wing had recovered sufficiently - "The medics said he was good to go. I just listened to what they said," Johnson said later - appeared debatable.
Such an effervescent and dynamic presence in recent weeks, Ashton was certainly subdued for the rest of the match, rarely moving from his wing, and offered little resistance to Lwazi Mvovo as the wing brushed past him to seal victory with 10 minutes left.
The imperious Matfield, by contrast, only added to his reputation as the outstanding lock of his generation. He revealed later that he had broken a rib in the Ashton incident, but no-one would have known it for the remaining 73 minutes.
"I felt it pop out and it was sore, so I tried to stay out of contact," said the Boks skipper. "It didn´t work but I kept going, had an injection at half-time and it got better."
Matfield was a dominant presence in a stop-start game that suited the Boks down to the ground. With England constantly spilling ball and conceding penalties at regular intervals - 10 in the first half alone - South Africa had a ball in the set-pieces.
As well as winning all 17 of their own line-outs, they pilfered a couple of England's and also came out on top in the scrum, winning one against the head as well as several free-kicks and penalties.
"I'll drink to that..." - Victor Matfield shares that winning feeling with a Springboks fan. Photo: Reuters
Despite missing several kicks at goal and three drop-goal attempts between them, the Steyns - Morne and Francois - kept England pinned back with a strong kicking game, aided by influential scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, a converted number 10 himself.
England, hoping to tire out the Boks pack by moving the ball wide, only succeeding in running down blind alleys, failing to make the hard yards before being smashed back by the massed ranks of voracious Springbok tacklers.
South Africa did not win by doing anything spectacular. They played a limited game, the same one that brought them the last World Cup. But they did the basics far better than England.
"The reality of Test match rugby is that if you don't do the fundamentals of the game well for 80 minutes, you don't give yourselves a chance to win," said a frustrated Johnson afterwards. "We have to understand how to play Test rugby in all its forms."
The message appeared to have sunk in within an hour of the final whistle.
Ben Foden, who raced away for a late interception try - England's first against the Boks in four Tests - to give the scoreline a more flattering look, was refreshingly honest in his assessment of why the sweet chariot had lost its bearings so completely.
"We were probably a bit too relaxed after two good wins and the performances over the past few weeks, thinking it was just all going to happen for us," Foden said.
"Everyone was waiting for someone to do something, and then people started trying stupid things, forcing passes. You have to get over the gain-line first and foremost. We just forgot the basics today."
All of which left Johnson ruminating on a fifth defeat - and one draw - from 11 Tests in 2010, and a 13th in his 25 Tests in charge.
Two wins from this series was deemed "reasonable" by new RFU chief executive John Steele beforehand, and that is what materialised.
But there was no disguising the frustration at failing to make it three out of four, not least because victory would have shown England were capable of coming up with answers to the very different questions posed by two of the big three, Australia and South Africa.
Despite the stunning nature of the triumph over Australia, which looks even more impressive after the Wallabies' 59-16 hammering of France on Saturday night, England failed the examination provided by an obdurate Springboks side.
The world champions' style may not be enough to defend their title 10 months hence, but it was too good for England.
At least Johnson doesn't need to worry so much about dampening down expectations that were understandably inflated by the spectacular win over Australia.
England's worst performance of the month was a reality check, and a jolt to recently-restored confidence, even if - as the manager observed - "There has been lots of good stuff in this series".
But there is no need for panic, or wholesale changes, on the back of this result.
A Six Nations with three successive home games - against Italy, France and Scotland - offers an opportunity for further restoration work on the old Twickenham "fortress", which has at least awoken from its slumber these past few weeks.
England haven't won anywhere but Rome in the championship under Johnson, but an opening fixture in Cardiff should now be an occasion to relish rather than fear. Victory in the Welsh capital would swiftly restore talk of possible titles and Grand Slams, even if England's final match is in Dublin.
Asked if this group of players is the one that will take England forward into next year's World Cup, Johnson was unequivocal.
"Absolutely," he replied, without hesitation. "This is one game, just as Australia was one game. The progress of this team is hugely upwards, there is no doubt about that."
Partly by accident, partly by design, England have a team again. Despite this setback, the future is still bright, even if the present is not quite as rosy as some may have thought.