England may have had "a bad day at the office" in the words of head coach Gary Street, but their 25-0 victory over South Africa at Appleby College on Wednesday was enough to successfully defend the Women's Nations Cup crown with a round to spare.
The bonus point victory against a side they had beaten 74-8 when they last met at Women's Rugby World Cup 2006 gives them an unassailable six point lead at the top of the standings from USA, who claimed a last gasp 15-10 win over hosts Canada thanks to Emilie Bydwell's try.
England had brushed aside USA 39-7 and France 43-8 in their two previous matches and the Six Nations champions would have been expected to post a high score against a South African side seeking a first win in the first Women's Nations Cup.
However a performance riddled with uncharacteristic handling errors combined with a South African team determined to end their campaign with a strong performance meant that was not on the cards, although England could have won by a bigger margin had they not squandered two late scoring opportunities.
South Africa, whose best result was a 17-17 draw with France on day one, came racing out the blocks and appeared to catch England off guard, Phumeza Gadu unlucky not to score the opening try as England just managed to force her into touch with the line in sight.
The wing and Saloma Booysen caught the eye throughout the match and were able to fashion scoring opportunities when nothing seemed on. It was England, though, who ultimately crossed for the opening try, Rachel Burford breaking several tackles and the ball working its way out to Kat Merchant.
Useful insight for England
Alice Richardson converted and then kicked a penalty to send England in leading 10-0 at half time. They increased that advantage when Claire Allan broke the defensive line with a smart dummy, setting up a try for Charlotte Barras.
South Africa continued to put pressure on England but were unable to turn that into points and instead Burford and Barras crossed for further tries to secure a third successive bonus point victory. The final whistle was, though, met with cheers from the South African bench at keeping England within sight.
"If you look at how we started from the beginning of the tournament until the end, you'd have to be naive not to see the improvement," said South Africa coach Denver Wannies. "Today was a huge step in our progression towards the 2010 World Cup in August (next year).
"Now we start structuring everything towards the World Cup, and we should have six test matches between now and then to help us prepare. It really was a team effort today, and I believe it was our totality that brought us so much success today, but Gadu and Booysen continue to be impact players for us."
Street added: "I'm disappointed with the number of unforced errors we made during the game. This made it difficult for us but full credit must go to South Africa who took the game to us especially in the first half.
"We are delighted that we have won the tournament for the second year, and to do it away from home too against some very competitive competition. It has given us a very useful insight into where we are ahead of a World Cup year, but there is still one game to go and we must improve on this performance against Canada on Saturday and come back stronger."
Late rally seals USA win
England will conclude their campaign against Canada on Saturday, when the hosts will be looking to bounce back from a first defeat by their rivals USA since 2006. The Women's Eagles, beaten by Canada 25-17 in June, did though leave it late to triumph 15-10.
A draw had seemed likely when wing Tara Eckert charged down the left to score the try that tied the score at 10-10 with less than five minutes to play. Julianne Zussman missed the conversion and the Women's Eagles breathed a sigh of relief and pushed forward for the winning score.
Phaidra Knight propelled her side forward with a big run into the Canadian half and from there USA's two wings took over, Amy Daniels gaining ground before offloading to Bydwell to touch down and end their losing streak against their neighbours.
"This win shows just how far our team has come since December. It's a true testament to how much we've come together on and off the field," enthused Bydwell. "It's a huge step for us as we work toward the Rugby World Cup and a definite confidence boost - when we play hard as a team we can come up with the big play, whether its in the first minute or last minute of the game.
"All of us are just on top of the world right now."
Canada had earlier taken the lead when Brittany Waters charged over for the opening try and only score of the first half. With the USA's backline beginning to come good, they finally made the breakthrough when Daniels evaded the defence to touch down.
Second place battle
Stephanie Bruce's conversion edged the Eagles ahead and her 65th minute penalty left the Canadians needing a converted try to avoid back to back defeats, having lost 12-7 to France on day three. They did score through Eckert, but the USA players were not to be denied their victory.
"I'm happy the team earned another win in the tournament, and to get a win over a huge rival like Canada is obviously even more exciting," admitted USA coach Kathy Flores. "With about four minutes left in the game, it looked as if the game might end in a draw but we did not back down. I am proud of the team's intensity up until the final moments."
Her counterpart John Long added: "It was a tough game today. We gave them opportunities to score and they took it. This was a game we knew we could win and by all means, we should've won but they scored with a heartbreaker in the last minute."
USA's victory sees them leapfrog both Canada and France in the standings into second place with nine points, two more than the hosts with France fourth on six points. The Women's Eagles face France on the final day at Fletcher's Field, knowing that another win will see them finish as runners-up to England.