Two matches a week apart at the 2019 World Cup provided England with one of their highest highs and then lowest lows and, as they prepare for Saturday’s semi-final against South Africa, they can extract “learnings” from both.
The semi-final victory over New Zealand four years ago has been widely acclaimed as one of, if not the, best performance in England’s history. They utterly dominated a favoured All Black team and won far more comfortably than the 19-7 scoreline suggests.
They then turned up for the final against South Africa riding a wave of confidence but were blown away, particularly in the scrum, in a 32-12 defeat that similarly flattered the losers.
With up to 13 of the squad from those matches likely to be involved on Saturday, there is real relevance to what happened in both games, and why.
England are in a somewhat different position this time around. Four years ago they had impressively swept aside Australia in the quarter-final and had a settled, hugely confident team heading into the semis.
From the moment the England players approached the haka in a semi-circle, with captain Owen Farrell famously smirking as he watched the dance, they sent a clear message that they were not buying into the idea of the All Blacks aura and they backed it up with a performance of relentless power and accuracy.
The challenge then became how to prepare during the week to enable them to reproduce that intensity a week later. “We’ve seen in previous World Cups that teams sometimes play their final in semi-finals and don’t always turn up for a final so it will be interesting to see how England are next week,” Wales coach Warren Gatland said after the game.
Sure enough, in total contrast to the preceding week, it was England being hammered backwards from the start, and they were never able to get any kind of toe hold in the game.
England defence coach Kevin Sinfield said that how players who were involved draw from the peak and trough of 2019 would depend on their personalities. But there is already a clear narrative emerging from the England camp to praise the Springboks to the skies.
Sinfield said England were “in awe” of their physicality. “We think they are a nation that play the best rugby and play some great rugby,” he said. “They know what they are about and they don’t shy away from it.”
Scrum-half Danny Care continued the theme when he said: “I’ve got so much respect for them as a team, the way they play the game is incredible, some of their players are unbelievable, and they’ve got the pedigree and they know how to win World Cups.”
Steve Borthwick’s biggest decision is likely to be whether to recall Freddie Steward at full-back to deal with a South African aerial attack that caused France so many problems.
Steward was replaced for the Fiji quarter-final by Marcus Smith but a return for a man noted for his security under the high ball appears likely, as revealed by Telegraph Sport.