Dejected but not disheartened, thousands of England fans arrived at Haneda International Airport in Tokyo ready to fly home, the red rose still proudly displayed on their chest. The harrowing events of Saturday night were partially forgotten on the streets of Ginza or Shinjuku or wherever they could find a watering hole open into the early hours, but the disappointment of an opportunity missed remains the overwhelming message.
Over the next few days as the head for their well-earned holidays, the England players will reflect on the events of the last four months. It feels a long time ago since they arrived for their first day in Eddie Jones’s pre-Rugby World Cup training camp, but the rollercoaster journey that they embarked on led to exactly what the England boss had promised: a chance to win the World Cup.
Only on the biggest stage with the world watching, they came up short. How short? Well that depends on how you view the 32-12 defeat – either one of the heaviest losses in World Cup final history or a scoreline inflated by two late tries when England were chasing the game.
They will ask themselves whether they will ever get another chance to be within touching distance of the Webb Ellis Cup, and for the elder statesmen of the squad in Dan Cole, Courtney Lawes and Joe Marler, this probably was their last shot at World Cup glory.
But the vibe within the squad in the hours after the final defeat was not one of desolation or despair. It was one of disappointment, sure, but also one of pride and fulfilment at the journey they had all been on together. It would be a fair argument to say that there has never been an England camp with closer bonds than this one, with the bonds built over the last four years instrumental to rebuilding what was a broken squad.
England’s 2015 campaign could not have gone much worse following the pool-stage exit that cost Stuart Lancaster his job and Chris Robshaw his captaincy. With no coach, no captain and the worst ever performance from an England squad at a World Cup, the national team was in disarray.
The move by the RFU to appoint Jones – the first foreigner to coach the England national side – was a gamble, but it has somewhat paid off. The aim was to win the World Cup, and by that premise England have failed to deliver what they promised.
But there is now a young and talented core that not only plays powerful, dominant and entertaining rugby, but looks like they’re having fun while doing it. And that’s really the story of this World Cup campaign. The fact that England fans felt able to wear their shirts with pride even in defeat shows just how much faith this squad have restored among their faithful supporters, and the next four-year period could see rugby union reap the rewards as a result. To attract more players at amateur and grassroot level, more children taking up the sport and broadening the already expanding boundary into state schools would be the real English success story from Japan 2019, and thankfully it appears the RFU already fully aware that the hard work starts now.
“We have got an extensive plan back home,” said RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney. “Little things like there will be 10,000 rugby balls distributed round grassroots clubs in the next month. There are about five different initiatives to capitalise on this at the grassroots community level, grow participation, not just with youth but the women’s game as well. Anything like this you have to have that in place.
“When we go back we’ll talk to all of the clubs through the constituent bodies that run it at the grassroots level, get some feedback from them in what they have seen, applications they have had from new clubs and so on. The Minister of Sport was out here and that is one of the key things on his agenda, how do you take this and leverage it.”
England may not be returning with the Webb Ellis Cup in their possession, but they do so with the admiration of a nation – something they have not held for 12 long and painful years. It feels like the dawning of a golden era for English rugby, and for that a lot of credit has to go to Jones and his World Cup squad for bringing plenty of joy to a nation that desperately needs it. No English rugby fan will forget where they were when they saw the All Blacks’ grip on the game obliterated, or the memories of sending the Wallabies home in the most convincing of fashions. Having fielded the youngest squad in World Cup final history, the future looks brighter than ever before.
England lost the big one on Saturday, but they might just be getting started.