England had the Springboks reeling – now we’ll wait to see if cruel loss can be start of something better

It’s too soon to know if a brave defeat can be the catalyst for future success.

England had the Springboks reeling – now we’ll wait to see if cruel loss can be start of something better
England v South Africa, 2023 Rugby World Cup Semi-Final 2, International Rugby Union, Stade de France, Paris, France - 21 Oct 2023
Freddie Steward is dejected after England’s defeat (Picture: Shutterstock)

Under the rain-drenched Parisian skies, England played their best game of the tournament but it was not enough.

It’s too soon to know if a brave semi-final defeat can be the catalyst for future success but the cruel reality of World Cup rugby is that errors are punished and the good, let alone great, teams find a way to win.

For 77 minutes, England were in front and looked fairly comfortable. Forcing South Africa into retreat with a barrage of kicks. The Boks were reeling.

England’s physicality was immense – so much so that it seemed to shock their opposition. White shirts ripped into each contact with such joy that South Africa were left searching for a solution.

As England controlled the tempo and the physicality of the game, their players seemed to thrive in the slippery conditions. With speed of handling diminished and the soaked turf suiting a kicking game, England were in their element. As the gain line was won and the kicks turned the South African back three, England started chipping away at the scoreboard.

You never want to chase a game in a World Cup and England, when up by nine points after a magnificent Owen Farrell drop-goal, never looked like they would have to. South Africa were the team forced into playing catch-up.

To do so they removed Manie Libbok in the first half and replaced him with Handre Pollard, a man who didn’t even make the initial World Cup squad. They too introduced their ‘bomb squad’ up front to immense effect.

Those two combinations of a bit more control and the cracking of England’s scrum set the wheels in motion for the comeback. It is ironic that four years ago in a World Cup final when Kyle Sinckler was removed and Dan Cole came on, England’s scrum took a bit of a hit.

This time the roles were reversed. Joe Marler and Cole were the granite-faced pairing that halted any South African scrum pressure for 53 minutes, until Sinckler and Ellis Genge came on.

England v South Africa: Semi-Final - Rugby World Cup France 2023
Steve Borthwick oversaw a transformation in England’s fortunes (Picture: Getty Images)

As the game clock ticked on, slowly winding down to what many started to feel and believe could and should be an England victory, South Africa started to claw their way back in to the contest.

A try with ten minutes to go brought the game tantalisingly close. With a quick exit and a high short kick from Freddie Steward, his first mistake of the night after he had been colossal all game, his knock-on trying to reclaim it set the platform for the Springboks to apply some scrum pressure.

Penalty South Africa and Pollard, the man who was not part of the Boks coaches’ pre-tournament plans, stepped up and clipped it over from 50metres.

The cruelty of sport became a realisation for England’s players.

One mistake and one referee’s decision and it was game gone.

England should be proud that, after having had a poor Six Nations with the turmoil of back-office changes and again another disjointed World Cup warm-up series, they have recovered admirably.

Can England use this as a catalyst to build into next year’s Six Nations and beyond? Are those younger players to be the foundations of what is an opportunity to grow and develop England’s attack and overall game?

RUGBY - WORLD CUP - 1/2 - ENGLAND v SOUTH AFRICA, , Saint-Denis, France - 21 Oct 2023
Courtney Lawes has been a fantastic servant for England (Picture: Shutterstock)

These questions are potentially a little too soon, and maybe it is time to realise that for some England greats that was their last World Cup – their last chance of lifting the Webb Ellis trophy has gone.

The cruelty of sport stops for no one and there is always a tomorrow, another game, another week of training and preparing. Except when there isn’t, as is the case for Courtney Lawes, who announced his international retirement, the end of his England journey, and it will be others’ too.

For the younger players, just four years until the next one…

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