I was emotionally exhausted by England’s semi-final defeat by South Africa. It was the nerve-jangling evening I thought it might be.
The two teams arrived at the tournament in very different states. England had lost to Fiji in their final warm-up match. South Africa had beaten New Zealand by a record score.
But throughout the week’s build-up you could feel that it was going to be a far tighter contest than those results might have suggested.
England had grown in confidence through their campaign. The heavy rain that was forecast, and duly arrived, was always going to be a leveller. South Africa’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus was busy on social media which is always a suggestion that he knows he is in for a tough match.
It felt that the stars were starting to align for England and once the match got under way they played a simple gameplan with supreme accuracy. South Africa’s mistakes fuelled their belief and it felt like the Springboks were spiralling out of the match.
It reminded me of how England disintegrated in that final in Yokohama in 2019 – but a complete role reversal.
Dawson reacts to England’s World Cup semi-final defeat in the Stade de France
The difference was that England could not quite get out of reach on the scoreboard. The match was always just a moment away from a significant momentum shift. That was the source of tension and angst for England fans.
South Africa had that glimmer of hope and in the final 10 minutes or so they found a way to realise it with RG Snyman’s try and Handre Pollard’s long-range penalty.
Those 10 points sprung from South Africa’s sudden dominance in the scrum. That caught me by surprise. It is obviously one of the Springboks traditional strengths, but the replacements they made were taking bulk out of their pack.
Snyman in place of Eben Etzebeth. Ox Nche on for Steven Kitshoff. Kwagga Smith on for Siya Kolisi. Deon Fourie on for Duane Vermeulen.
Those four switches added up to a net loss of 32kg or five stone in the South Africa pack, but their cohesion and coordination proved too much for England’s replacement props Kyle Sinckler and Ellis Genge. I found that amazing.
Mentality and consistency key for coming years
Was that performance a template for how the team should play in the future?
I don’t know. But it was the perfect style for Saturday. England’s kick-chase game and focus on defence were just what they needed against South Africa, especially considering the rainy conditions.
The difference to previous performances was the accuracy, composure and clarity that England showed.
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On a dry day, against opposition with a taller back three and a more expansive gameplan, it may not have worked so well.
But what England have to take from it is that big-match mentality – their intensity, accuracy and controlled aggression was there and is the bare minimum if you want to compete with the best teams in the world.
The end of one Rugby World Cup campaign inevitably gets people looking forward to the next, how England can improve and which players might be in place by Australia 2027.
What you must remember is that that tournament is four years away. So much can happen between now and then. Freddie Steward, one of England’s best players last night, was watching the 2019 Rugby World Cup final in a student bar! He wasn’t on anyone’s radar then.
The temptation is always to rush in a new era – to move on older players and blood new ones.
But look at how well Johnny Sexton has been playing and he is 38. South Africa’s number eight Vermeulen is 37.
My view is simple.
If you are good enough, you are good enough – at either end of the age scale.
Use the young players to push the older players. Use the older players to pass on their experience to the younger players. Together, that competition and friction helps push the whole team forward.
The last thing you want to do is prematurely and arbitrarily ditch anyone over, say, 32. You lose experience and knowhow and, if you lose a few games, you lose momentum.
The difference instead has to be in how we bring players into the set-up. Coach Steve Borthwick’s predecessor Eddie Jones would constantly bring players in and out. There was no consistency in selection. There was no chance to build a team and its patterns.
Second rows Chessum and Martin have both come out of the tournament with credit
If either George Martin or Ollie Chessum is Borthwick’s man in the second row, he has to show some faith and give them a concerted run of games.
There are areas to look at. Are Theo Dan and Jack Walker the hookers to push Jamie George? Who are the scrum-halves behind Jack van Poortvliet and Alex Mitchell?
But England are coming out of this tournament in pretty good shape. They have made incredible progress and, after such an underwhelming build-up, have given the rest of the rugby world a reminder that they are still a force.
They were three minutes from a Rugby World Cup final and no-one could have denied that they would have deserved to get there.
The players had done themselves and the country proud. They have had to contend with a change of coach, some difficult results earlier this year and the club game suffering the loss of Wasps, Worcester and London Irish and been excellent representatives on and off the pitch.
They should be incredibly positive going forward, but also recognise that we have been here before.
You could have said the same after the last Rugby World Cup.
The Rugby Football Union needs to make sure these guys get the security and continuity to deliver their best.
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Friday’s third place play-off against Argentina is a funny sort of fixture. It might be one more for fringe players to try and press their case before next year’s Six Nations.
It probably won’t be Steve Borthwick’s style, but I would approach it almost like a Barbarians fixture.
This England squad will never be together again. This tournament is unique to those in that camp. I would give them the space and freedom to bond and socialise together as people, rather than players. Let them create more memories and then go out and chase a win together.
The night after that game is the final – a fitting game to crown a great tournament.
South Africa and New Zealand are the two greatest rugby countries in the world. They are the facts. To have them in their first final together since 1995 – nearly 30 years ago – and have the biggest prize be contested by the biggest rivalry in the sport is perfect.
Hopefully the weather is drier than on Saturday night and the ball is flying around.
New Zealand will be significant favourites. Their semi-final win against Argentina was almost a training run compared to South Africa’s slugfest. They have also had an extra day’s rest. Their attack is crackling with threat.
A record fourth title is theirs for the taking. There is no hesitation in my mind about that.