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England pack earn World Cup redemption but Springboks adapt to deliver new heartbreak

The humiliation suffered by the English forwards in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final was banished but they still couldn’t prevent a cruel semi-final defeat to South Africa in Paris

Luke Baker
at the Stade de France
Saturday 21 October 2023 22:57 BST
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England's World Cup semi-final defeat to South Africa 'hurts' but team will come back 'stronger', says Borthwick

Not always in sport do you get a shot at redemption and successfully taking advantage of that opportunity is even rarer. England’s pack, and their front row in particular, will have had four years of sleepless nights about that early November evening in 2019.

In the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, England were decimated by South Africa’s power up front, as the brilliance of a scintillating semi-final win over New Zealand was quickly replaced by the humiliation of a 32-12 thumping.

The Springboks, then as now, pride themselves on their physicality and brutality at the breakdown, the set-piece and in open play. Yet on a rainy night in Paris four years on, England’s pack fronted up, set the platform in a thrilling World Cup semi-final and earned their redemption arc.

Yet it still wasn’t enough. This time, albeit by one point rather than 20, the result was the same – England’s players slumped on the turf in despair while their opponents revelled in victory. The Springbok celebrations were more muted this time, understandably so given there is one more crucial match against the All Blacks standing between them and their ultimate goal, but the English heartbreak was the same, even if the journey to get there was vastly different.

In Yokohama, South Africa won a scarcely believable 11 scrums to England’s three, including six scrum penalties, as the English eight were splintered time and again. Dan Cole became the fall guy for that embarrassment – the tighthead prop, supposedly renowned for his scrummaging, forced to play 77 minutes after Kyle Sinckler’s early injury and being obliterated by the combination of Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira and Steven Kitshoff.

The fact that Cole and Joe Marler, who came off the bench early in the second half that day, were selected by Steve Borthwick to start this revenge game precisely because of their scrum prowess will have surely given them a surge of confidence. And the fact they not only survived, but thrived, in the front row this time around will have been sheer vindication.

Borthwick entrusted the duo to paint an early picture of scrum parity to referee Ben O’Keeffe and they delivered, providing the base that led to multiple first-half penalties from the trusty boot of Owen Farrell.

Cole and Marler helped ensure scrum parity early on but that faded once the replacements came on (AFP via Getty Images)

However, as the game wore on, Borthwick’s decision started to become prescient for the wrong reasons. As Sinckler and Ellis Genge came on as prop replacements, the Springboks own bomb squad from the bench – led by Ox Nche and Vincent Koch – started to dominate at scrum-time. Each engagement started to become eerily reminiscent of 2019 and it was eventually a scrum penalty on halfway that led to Handre Pollard’s decisive, game-winning three-pointer with two minutes to go.

It felt almost unfair on England’s big men given that the pack, as a whole, had more than held their own in other facets.

Of the 13 England forwards who played some part in that 2019 final, eight appeared in this last-four clash and stamped their mark all over a first half that was by far England’s best 40 minutes under Borthwick.

Maro Itoje was a lineout fiend, stealing a Springboks throw-in on halfway and putting doubt in the head of Bongi Mbonambi, whose crooked throw in his own 22 gave Farrell his first penalty goal of the day.

A new face from four years, George Martin, justified his surprise second-row selection ahead of incumbent Ollie Chessum on just his fourth Test start as he brilliantly marshalled England’s maul defence. If Boks lock Eben Etzebeth is world rugby’s best maul disruptor, then he may have witnessed first-hand the emergence of a new challenger to that crown. Martin caused havoc as England improbably won three consecutive maul turnovers from attacking South African lineouts in the first half to frustrate their much-fancied opponents.

Pollard ultimately kicked the winning penalty, from a scrum infringement (PA Wire)

The celebrations from the likes of Itoje, Jamie George and Ben Earl as those penalties and free-kicks were earned by the pack showed just how important this part of the gameplan was. It began putting clear doubt in Springbok minds, as the worried tone from skipper Siya Kolisi when he discussed matter with referee O’Keeffe betrayed.

The English tactic of throwing bodies in to contest every ruck relied on the diesel engines of the forwards and they delivered by dominating collisions and allowing the aerial bombardment strategy that followed to be effective.

But ultimately, despite a gameplan executed as well as it possibly could have been, the gap in quality between the sides proved too much to overcome. South Africa adjusted, Pollard came on for Manie Libbok to dictate proceedings with his metronomic boot and English heartbreak ensued.

There was no shame in a one-point defeat from a semi-final that was much closer than most expected and England’s pack should feel redeemed from the nightmare of 2019. But that won’t make this semi-final hurt any less. Perhaps 2027 will give them an opportunity to avenge a new pain.

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