On November 2, 2019, England faced a Rugby World Cup final with the youngest-ever side, boasting an average age of 27 years and 60 days. Despite the defeat on that day, hope for the future in the 2023 World Cup seemed promising. However, fast forward three years and nine months, and England finds itself suffering a first-ever loss to Fiji in the final World Cup warm-up match at Twickenham. Fans and critics alike are left wondering, “How did we get here?”
Another two months down the line, England, after a fairly lackluster World Cup campaign, led the reigning world champions, South Africa, for more than 70 minutes in the World Cup semi-final. Still, they agonizingly lost 16-15 after a late Handre Pollard penalty. The question echoing once more is, “How did we get here?”
England’s head coach, Steve Borthwick, sought solace after the semi-final by casting his gaze toward the future and expressing enthusiasm about his youthful side. “That 23,” he said, “seven players are 25 or under, the most of any semi-finalist, so there’s a great blend, and there will be lots of things we can take forward.”
Amidst a backdrop of past failures, England now sees a flicker of hope and renewed optimism on the horizon. The circumstances today differ greatly from those of four years ago. While it was predicted in 2019 that changes would occur in the squad, the core group was expected to remain the same. Indeed, only two players from the 2019 final squad are no longer professional players. Moreover, each member of the starting XV in 2019 continued to contribute to England’s journey in 2023, with ten of them facing South Africa in the semi-final.
In contrast, at least seven members of the England team that battled against the Springboks in Paris may not be part of the 2027 World Cup squad due to age and form considerations. However, England can draw hope from the young talent that has emerged during the 2023 World Cup. Players like George Martin, Freddie Steward, and Ben Earl, all aged 25 or under, have shown incredible promise.
As England rekindles its optimism, the future may not gleam as brightly as in some other rugby nations with a steady stream of young talent, but it certainly appears more hopeful than it did only a few weeks ago. Yet, England’s journey over the last four years has felt like a rollercoaster ride, marked by both highs and lows. The passage to the final would have concealed some of the underlying issues, yet it was hardly a comprehensive solution.
Reflecting on this turbulent period, there are several factors that contributed to England’s trials and tribulations, and many of these should serve as cautionary lessons moving forward:
1. Get a Settled Coaching Team: England experienced a revolving door of coaching staff over the last four years, which hindered consistency in their approach. A stable coaching team is vital for a unified message and long-term success.
2. Win Back Twickenham: The atmosphere at Twickenham has been lackluster in recent years, reflecting the uninspiring style of rugby played. Capturing the crowd’s enthusiasm and creating a vibrant atmosphere should be a priority.
3. Forget About World Cups: England’s focus on World Cups has been so parochial that it neglected the intervening years. A more balanced approach is needed, with an emphasis on the present.
4. Replicate That Passion: The sporadic displays of passion and spirited rugby should be a consistent feature of England’s play. The infectious spirit displayed against the Springboks can invigorate the team and captivate the fans.
5. Cement Combinations: A settled and established combination across the field, especially at center, is crucial for success in international rugby. England needs to develop and maintain these partnerships.
6. Develop an Identity: England should seek to establish a clear identity and playing style, moving away from the kick-heavy approach that has characterized recent years. Other nations have succeeded in building distinct identities, and England must follow suit.
The last four years have been a rollercoaster ride for English rugby. As the team navigates its way through these lessons, the future may hold the promise of brighter days ahead. However, success will require a concerted effort to address the issues and forge a clear path forward.