You could tell there was a surprise coming, even pre match. Freddie Steward was in tears during the anthem and there was real emotion, especially from Maro Itoje who looked like he meant business and led from the front, a critical change. By contrast, Sia Kolisi and his team seemed subdued. From the whistle, the Boks were shaken by a whole series of little moments and they could not get a foothold. It happens to the best, and England held them in a vice of confusion and uncertainty -let us pay tribute to their performance which won the hearts of a nation who had no real expectation. I also hope that supporters will find some shared feelings with Owen Farrell who was close to tears in the post match interview and at last let down the guard which has alienated him at times. To be clear he had an outstanding game – strictly with the boot but that was the plan.
The South African friend with whom I was watching the match was screaming at the screen with frustration, disbelieving the mayhem as we edged ahead bit by bit and I was allowing my own hopes to grow and to believe we could do this somehow. Could a limited England live with a destiny bound Springbok squad for whom the opposition was in their mind an irritation not a threat and how wrong they were. I was fascinated to see how long some obvious but well executed tactics would sustain England – high, contestable cross/box kicks onto their back three added to incredible intensity. Well, nearly all the way to the point that they were either unlucky or robbed according to some.
I disagree. It is simple – world class teams ‘find a way to win’ even if they can only manage 15 mins of positive play in the match as did the Boks. Borthwick has had to use this expression often these last months, difference being that England’s way to win was against a stream of second tier nations whom they should have been swatting to one side. It is very different when playing for a place in the World Cup Final. England never looked like scoring a try while South Africa took just about their only opportunity during a period when their myriad of replacements found a spark that had been mysteriously lacking for almost the entire match till then. Credit due to England for that.
More credit to the Springboks though because to come back from two scores down in wet weather and under huge pressure is spectacular. The Final is impossible to call now – but I do believe that two such insipid forward performances on the bounce are unlikely and with that some control to add to their scoring ability. I cannot name check any Boks players from the weekend because they were so poor, but Pollard and Ox Nche were key replacements and are likely to be again if not starters.
So to England in more detail – Did anyone really doubt that they would make the semifinal? It is tempting to tow the party line that a platform is now set for the future, and to a degree this is true. However, some reality checks:
1/ Home truths on players
Marchant was told by Jones he would never play for England again, and now is a fixture ( been my favourite for a couple of years now) but leaving for France for 3 years. His partnership with Tuilagi is over before it has begun. Earl and Mitchell were not even in the squad some months back and only now are certain of their places and played their best games in the semifinals. They must grow and mature.
But various chickens are coming home to roost; where are the props, hookers, centres, wings, No 8’s and scrum halves after near zero planning in the last few years. Thanks Eddie.
There are some great young talents now being allowed to breathe but whose growth has been stunted unnecessarily. Do not expect a quick return to the top table, it takes time and after all we have not been there for 20 years.
2/ Playing style
We have to work out an attack strategy and learn to play at pace. While the autumnal conditions drove the weekend tactics as well as the nature of the opposition, different conditions would have made no difference. We are one paced and unimaginative but this can change.
3/ Off field.
A little noticed announcement from HQ stated that the current CEO will no longer be the line manager for the England coach, but instead a knowledgeable Professional Game Board. About time. After 20 years of mismanagement by a number of CEO’s following Sir Clive Woodward’s departure this has been so damaging. In addition, the anonymous review panel has been disbanded, the one which could not spot the disintegration of the player pathway in England and the disconnect between Eddie Jones and pretty much every knowledgeable rugby brain in England.About time.
To be clear, this..will..make..a..difference.
So will the new Professional Game Agreement, we hope.
4/ The rebuild
Steve Borthwick has restored pride and stayed calm amid the opprobrium and criticism. He now needs to blend in some vision to take England back to the top. This will not be easy, to bring back the fun and the smile to faces, marry ambition, skill and pace to pragmatism. For that he will have to build a top team around him, on and off the field. He will also need the player pathway to be rebuilt for him and decisions made now by administrators will either help or hinder.
There is a long and winding road ahead, starting Friday which actually does matter in how we cope with Argentina – this bronze medal match has plenty riding on it as it will show what England can really deliver as a benchmark for what lies ahead.
As for the Springboks the dream stays alive – just.