England’s Rugby World Cup final agony and the questions left unanswered

No one will ever know truly why Eddie Jones’ side lost this final only that they did

Jonathan Liew
International Stadium Yokohama
Saturday 02 November 2019 12:46
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The trophy engraver had seen enough. There were still a few minutes to go in the World Cup final, and if you were an English player or an English partisan, perhaps still a few faint flickers of hope. But the engraver and his burin were already calling it. There it was: England’s ignominy, etched in copper plate for eternity: 2019 – SOUTH AFRICA.

As Cheslin Kolbe touched down for South Africa’s second try, it was instructive to see how England’s players dealt with the realisation that finally, there was no way back. Owen Farrell dropped to his knees. Joe Marler grasped his head in his hands. Jamie George sat glumly on the bench with his chin in his hands, unwilling to watch, unwilling to turn away. Playing in a World Cup final is often described as the pinnacle of a player’s career. But a World Cup final that you know you’ve lost? Perhaps, instead, it feels more like a nadir.

In time, of course, the bruises will fade and the wounds will heal. Life goes on, even after a World Cup final, and once they emerge from the bubble in which they have encased themselves for the last few months, England’s players may even reflect that there is a certain bittersweet satisfaction to be taken from the whole experience. Nobody’s going to forget that semi-final against the All Blacks, after all. Or the crushing win over Australia. Or the way that, for these precious weeks, a team written off by many stuck together, clung together, and came within grasping distance of the biggest prize of all.

Even so, that’s not what they came for. Defeat has a marvellous way of cleansing the extraneous, exposing the real core of the matter. And in falling short here, England will realise deep down that they weren’t really interested in uniting a divided country, or inspiring the next generation, or becoming rich and famous. The only identity this England team ever aspired to, the only cause they were ever interested in pursuing, was winning.

How and why they failed so spectacularly is a question that will doubtless consume much of the next few days, possibly even longer. Theories and narratives will wind and wrap themselves around the game itself like overgrown weeds swallowing up an old house, until we won’t really be able to remember what actually happened, only how it fitted into the story we constructed for ourselves afterwards.

For example, it’ll probably be forgotten just how late into the game England were still in with a shout. Going into the last 15 minutes, they were still within a score of victory. Indeed, had Farrell earlier slotted over a penalty from close to the right touchline, England would have been 12-15 behind and with the momentum behind them. Instead Billy Vunipola knocked the ball on immediately from the restart, England were forced to scramble, and South Africa swiftly won a penalty of their own.

That, in many ways, was the story of the game: the Springboks not merely crushing England’s scrum and running lines, but their hope. It was a brilliant display of game management, of a team maximising their strengths, playing the long game, pummelling and pummelling and chipping away at the scoreboard until England, slowly at first and then all at once, broke apart.

Was complacency a factor here? I don’t think so. More that, called upon to play a completely different sort of game to the one required last Saturday against the All Blacks, England too often found themselves in the embrace of the unfamiliar, against a team whose own patterns and traits had been drilled and conditioned and hard-wired over weeks and months. The strategy might have been there, but the muscle memory wasn’t. When it came to the crunch moments under the highest pressure, South Africa knew their game better than England knew theirs.

The passes went to hand. The kicks went exactly where they were meant to. The set piece was ruthless. Every tackler was instinctively chased in by two more. South Africa’s victory was defined not by individual flourishes but by a collective brilliance: the sort of synergy where actions are undertaken on instinct, without a moment’s thought. England have made a great deal of their adaptability during this tournament, but this game felt like a case of five plans that didn’t work against one plan that did.

Might it have been different if England hadn’t lost Kyle Sinckler so early? Might it have been different if Jerome Garces hadn’t been in charge? Might they have been better served playing for territory early on, settling into the game rather than trying to fling it around from the off? Did the occasion get to them? As England settle into their luxurious business-class beds on their flight home, these are the questions that will haunt their dreams. Maybe that’s the worst thing about losing a final. Your questions never get answered.

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