The similarities with South Africa’s travails between tournaments are telling. Just as the Springboks’ journey from London to Yokohama was rocky and predominantly downhill, so was England’s from Yokohama to Paris.
Despite showing promise in the 2020 Six Nations, England emerged from the pandemic a shadow of their former selves. After staggering on under Jones for as long as they could bear, the RFU brought forward Borthwick’s arrival to perform an emergency rescue job ahead of the World Cup. However, in a disappointing Six Nations campaign, the results showed little sign of improvement.
Just like South Africa in the lead up to Japan, England were roundly written off before flying out to France. Perhaps the most unfortunate similarity is the way in which they have been condemned for playing an ugly brand of rugby.
But since arriving at the World Cup, Borthwick’s side have forged a siege mentality, and with it assembled five consecutive victories without sparing a second thought for style. If there were an award for the worst score of the tournament – rugby’s equivalent of the Golden Raspberry Awards – Courtney Lawes’s try from Joe Marler’s header against Japan would be a firm contender.
England have spent this week with the words of Springboks legend Joel Stransky pinned to the wall of their hotel. The former Boks fly-half dismissed Borthwick’s side as a team who “do not excel in any area”. The intention of England in doing so is not to stir up anger among the players but rather to place the pressure back on South Africa. Put simply: England have nothing to lose.
In spite of changing coach with 11 months to go before the World Cup, suffering their first ever loss to Fiji on the eve of the tournament, and having their captain booed each time his name is announced, England find themselves in the lime-light of a semi-final, massive outsiders, but with a shot at deposing the champions.
England’s resurgence may have come later than South Africa’s did in Japan, but they now have their shot at redemption, and with it the chance to exorcise the ghosts of 2019.