Up into the stands the England players clambered to find their families, taking the consolatory hugs but unsure quite how to feel. Across 80 minutes in Paris, their belief had been replaced by disbelief and then by desperation and dejection, England threatening the unthinkable and taking the world champions to the brink.
For most of a sodden Stade de France evening, a Rugby World Cup final was within their grasp. A South Africa side superior in most areas were dragged down into the sort of slugfest the Springboks would usually favour, and very nearly bested at their own game. England had given their all but it was still not enough, one stable scrum, one Handre Pollard slip or slice, short of stunning the world champions.
The emotional maelstrom of this defeat will swirl rather differently to the feelings that eddied after the 2019 World Cup final disaster. “I’m proud of our performance,” were virtually the first words out of the mouth of wing Elliot Daly. “I think we shocked them. I don’t think they knew how to get into the game.”
“I think we knew what was coming and we knew we could perform like this,” added Daly, virtually unused in open play but outstanding as a kick chaser to exemplify the squad’s buy-in to a strategy that so nearly proved successful.
The finer points of Steve Borthwick’s tactical plan had been put in place this week but this was a performance England had been building towards since long ago. A flawed side did not come to France to thrill; winning by any means necessary had been a consistent theme.
If necessity is oft the mother of invention, England at this tournament have also proved the pair can be enemies. This was a campaign at which they seemed to intentionally limit their attacking innovation or ingenuity– recognising a need to figure themselves out on the fly, they settled on an effective and eminently executable gameplan that could be implemented quickly.
It came so close to working in Saturday’s semi-final; their effort, accuracy and competitiveness in the key contests were spot on. At the 65-minute mark, England outside backs had a combined 17 metres carried, all from one Freddie Steward kick return. The two number 13s’ offensive output on the final whistle amounted to one late Joe Marchant lug; South Africa centre Jesse Kriel went the full 80 minutes without an attacking touch.
“We came with a plan to win the game but we fell a little bit short,” reflected Borthwick. “But the players should be incredibly proud. We put ourselves in a position to win against the world champions.
“We were playing against a coaching team who have been in place since 2018. We’ve had four months. I’ve asked the players to approach training and the game in a different way; for the players to be willing to change is all credit to them.”
This was a night from which the head coach will take heart, a public perhaps struggling to warm to this England team are now recognising the progress made. There will be a need to layer on much, much more to consistently mix it with the world’s best but the rapidly laid foundations look rock solid. In time, perhaps the ugly duckling performances will turn into white swans.
There appear to be many more buds of a bright future than first appeared in a barren landscape pre-tournament. Ben Earl has had a breakthrough tournament, and Ollie Chessum, too, while George Martin semi-final performance marks him out as the potential enforcer England have lacked. Borthwick was keen to talk up the absent Marcus Smith the day after the defeat, with the playmaker’s reinvention as a frolicking full-back of intrigue moving forward.
"In our 23, seven players are 25 or under, the most of any semi-finalist, there’s a great blend and there will be lots of things we can take forward,” added Borthwick.
But the fact that the men’s national team were on the brink of back-to-back finals should not provide a façade over the crumbling edifice of a fragile English game. There is a domestic mess that needs sorting, with a Gallagher Premiership containing three teams fewer than at the start of last season, now underway to little fanfare and on the brink of significant change.
The renegotiation of the Professional Game Partnership is a recognition of a need for a radical overhaul in pursuit of a more financially sustainable domestic game, and one that produces a wider pool of top-class talent.
The likely arrival of a form of central contracts underlines a period of epochal change. The senior figures in the squad who are unlikely to play beyond this tournament – Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs, Dan Cole and perhaps a couple more – could well be the last England men’s internationals never to have been contracted to the union. This has a great many benefits, not least in affording Borthwick, or any head coach that might follow him, far greater access to and control over his players.
And while Borthwick’s articulation of the advantages enjoyed by South Africa’s settled staff is a perfectly fair one, let us remember that the Rugby Football Union (RFU) put their head coach in this situation. The original planning for this tournament would most likely have seen Borthwick return to England camp to aid Eddie Jones at the World Cup before a smooth transition into the lead role afterwards. Jones’s sacking sparked a scramble and several months of chaos. It was not shown up on semi-final weekend but there are many reasons that the RFU still has a burden to bear.
But the full wash-up will wait for another week – England’s performance at the Stade de France has earned them seven more days of grace. The tournament will end as it began for England with a meeting with Argentina in a third-place play-off that Borthwick insists he wants to win.
“I read a piece yesterday morning that talked about adversity and talked about the fact that in adversity you find that seed of belief and you’ve got to grow it,” Borthwick said. “This team has been through a bit in the last few years, a bit of adversity in the medium-term past.
“I think through each of those periods the team has picked up lessons, picked up what we need to do and grown from it. I think there’s a lot of growth in this team. Sometimes it’s not the straight-forward path you want it to be. In the feelings and emotions of the game last night, I know that we’ll get stronger.”