‘What has changed is that England have regained respect’

Welcome back England. Where have you been? You’ve been missed. Feisty, bloody-minded, niggly, nuggety forwards going about their business, never giving an inch, never taking a backward step, a fierce, close-quarters scrap – England’s Last Tangle in Paris was a riveting, cinematic watch.

Even if it raises a chuckle down south of the equator as the Poms indulge in their sweet, time-honoured habit of celebrating heroic failure, it is only right and proper that there is a tip of the hat to Steve Borthwick and his much-maligned (and rightly so) England squad,  nothing too pronounced, you understand, but respectful of a job honourably carried out even if not brought to a successful conclusion.

You need context to fully appreciate what this was all about. England have had a lousy 12 months. Eddie Jones was shown to be a huckster (and is still pulling off the same old chase-the-lady tricks in Australia) before Borthwick was hired to do a rescue job. He was labouring to even manage that with any degree of assurance while all around him the English domestic game was crumbling into financial ruin. It was a right old mess. Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

The bookies were giving England a 13 point start, crazy odds in a semi-final two-horse race and few outside the camp gave the men in white a prayer. And logically so. England had shown little in the tournament except to make the most of the lop-sided draw. Luckily, the only ones who mattered were inside the camp, plotting, scheming and getting all fired up.

England took the game to South Africa, exemplified by Elliot Daly hammering Duane Vermeulen backwards (Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images)

Are all English ills now cured? Of course not. Will they now take the 2024 Six Nations by storm as the leading northern hemisphere side in the tournament, unbeaten until the last two minutes of a wonderfully absorbing World Cup semi-final? Again, of course not. But what has changed is that England have regained respect, for themselves as much as for the outside world. They are back in the ball game. And, after such a wretched time, that is a significant achievement. Borthwick can now get down to the real re-build mission that is needed without anyone questioning his own fitness for purpose. Why, who knows, he might even be able to see his way to getting the team to score a try or two.

The credibility question is no longer a talking point. That’s for sure. Borthwick can plan for the future without any white noise to distract him. There may well be rumblings and ructions within the RFU as to their governance of the game but Borthwick’s position is now 100% assured. Of course, it would have taken a calamitous turn of events at the Stade de France on Saturday night for that to be any different but given that South Africa once put 36 unanswered points on an England side at the self-same stadium that scenario was not beyond the realms of possibility. How many would have been that surprised if it had been a blow-out? And if that had come to pass, then it would have been impossible to ignore.

England have no need to apologise for the way that they play. They didn’t before, even if it turned off many of us if only because it was so unproductive in getting a result, and they certainly didn’t on Saturday night.

That’s the beauty as well as the cruelty of sport. Results do shape and even change perceptions. It might be unfair but that is the way it is. A 36-point loss would not have been acceptable and would have had repercussions. A last-gasp one-pointer is another matter entirely.

England have no need to apologise for the way that they play. They didn’t before, even if it turned off many of us if only because it was so unproductive in getting a result, and they certainly didn’t on Saturday night. It was entirely the right way to set about rattling the ‘Boks. And it did. Right from the first whistle. That opening spell, when expectations were turned on their head, was reminiscent of the about-turn experienced at the start of the 2019 World Cup final. You knew within ten minutes that England, so fancied, so seemingly in form, were simply not at the races. The Springboks were and got their due return.

George Martin
George Martin put in a monstrous defensive display in a coming-of-age performance. (Photo Xavier Laine/Getty Images)

England did a similar sort of number on the ‘Boks themselves, invading their comfort zone and making a right old nuisance of themselves. That set the tone. And it very nearly paid off. Two things were to make a difference for South Africa – Handre Pollard’s boot that did to England what Morne Steyn did to the Lions in 2009, breaking so many hearts and, most tellingly as it created the pressure point in the first place, Ox Nche.

A fallible scrum was one of England’s problems in the 2019 final. And so it proved again last night once Joe Marler and Dan Cole departed the scene. Ought they to have remained on the field? Hindsight and all that. And they were tiring while the Boks were emptying their bench. And some, Pollard arriving not long after Ben O’Keefe’s whistle blast to start the game was fading on the Parisian night air. None was more fearsome and influential, though, than Nche. The loosehead will loom large in the nightmares of Kyle Sinckler. Four penalties went against the England scrum in those anxious latter stages. A pal wondered if Borthwick ought to have done a Rassie Erasmus when he saw what was unfolding and instructed his props to go down with an injury and get Marler and Cole back out there? That’s a gambit too far by my reckoning. But the scrum frailty was to prove the difference. On such margins.

England now have to rouse themselves for the bronze medal play-off on Friday night. Argentina set great store by it in 2007 and so should England.

To those nitwits claiming that the semi-final was a bore-fest because there was so much kicking and so much faffing about at scrums, the only answer is to instruct them to shove it where the sun don’t shine and head off to watch rugby league, a fine sport in its own right with far fewer as well as inconsequential scrums.

The weather was wretched in Paris which put a premium on handling while the scrum is a point of distinction in the very sport itself. So, sod off.

England now have to rouse themselves for the bronze medal play-off on Friday night. It might well feel like not much of a consolation prize but it certainly wasn’t viewed that way by the Argentinians themselves back in 2007. They set great store by it and so should England.

Owen Farrell was heroic against the Springboks and now needs to rouse his side against Argentina next weekend (Photo by Julian Finney Getty Images)

There hasn’t been much to cheer about for their supporters so one last hurrah would be a fine way to round off things. After Saturday’s near-miss heroics, it’s the least they deserve.

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