Sixteen years ago, after his Wallabies side lost to England in extra time of the World Cup final, Jones quipped ‘England are the best team in the world… by one minute.’ On Saturday, in the 2019 final, South Africa were the best team by the full 80.
Two teams entered this match, one off the back of a dominant victory over back-to-back World Cup winners, one having squeaked past an injury-ravaged Welsh team. But it was the latter who took home the trophy. A hat-tip to the Springboks – worthy winners and Siya Kolisi lifting the trophy is a seminal moment for the sport and South Africa.
England were beaten up, given an old-fashioned schooling at the set piece by a South Africa team who rose to the occasion. England, in contrasted, wilted; an anti-climactic collapse with passes flung to no one, kicks out on the full, missed tackles and muddled attack, where the week before all had been executed to perfection.
What can we read into it? Not too much perhaps. In England’s semi-final win, two great teams took to the field, one produced a brilliant performance, the other an abject one. In the final the same thing happened, England just swapped which they were. ‘That’s the great thing about rugby, one day you’re the best team in the world, the next a team knocks you off,’ Jones said after the game. So, England are not as good as the semi-final suggested, but also not as bad as the final defeat. Overall, it is still a tournament for England to be proud of, even if the ending hurt.
Or perhaps we can read everything into it. This wasn’t the contest we hoped for, or even expected. Was there an emotional hangover from the semi-final? We questioned whether England could back it up and the answer was no. But they are not alone – since 1999, the four teams to have knocked New Zealand out have failed to win the next game: France in ’99, Australia in ’03, France in ’07 and now England in 2019. Does it have an impact? Only those four teams will know for sure.
Psychology aside, where this match was certainly lost was at the set piece. In the scrum, Tendai Mtawarira had Dan Cole on toast for breakfast, with a large helping of marmalade. It was one of the most one-sided scrummaging displays I can recall between top-tier teams since, well, Mtawarira against Phil Vickery in the first 2009 Lions test. What rubs salt into the wound is the scrum is seen as Cole’s strongest aspect. Having sadly lost Kyle Sinckler to a freak concussion off Maro Itoje’s elbow in the second minute, England were robbed of one of their attacking lynchpins. Cole instead is supposed to provide, at the very least, scrum stability.
Of course, the scrum is an eight-man effort. With the more athletic Courtney Lawes at lock, perhaps the added ballast of George Kruis was missed (Jones made the switch at the break). Joe Marler also helped steady things when he came on at 45, but by then it was too late.
Some of those penalties were clear cut, others less so. The issue is, when a scrum has an early ascendency, the referee will naturally side with that team on 50:50 calls. That is not to complain about the refereeing, but it does put an onus on the struggling pack to change the officials’ minds. Where were the pack leaders on Saturday? Who was talking to Jérôme Garcès, trying to get him onside and putting doubt in his mind about the legality of the Springboks’ scrum? In the 2003 final, when the scrum was under pressure, Jason Leonard came on and told the ref he would sort out the scrum because he was the most experienced scrummager in the world. It worked.
I’m not saying get into the ref’s face and shout, but this is a World Cup final – there is nothing to be earned from meek acceptance. England needed someone to do something.
We can also look to squad selection issues, particularly at tighthead and scrumhalf. Ben Youngs was having one of his off days, but there was little option to replace him given Ben Spencer, a player with only 18 minutes of test experience and had been with the squad for a few days as a late replacement for the injured Willi Heinz. England were light in specialist positions – instead Jones took an extra back-three player, gambling on an injured Jack Nowell getting fit and playing a key part in the tournament. He didn’t and in hindsight it was a mistake.
So where do England go from here? This was the youngest team to play a World Cup final, and many – unless form or fitness strike – will be there in 2023 and all the more experienced. For players just breaking through like Tom Curry and Sam Underhill it is exciting to think how good they could be. But for several core players, this might have been one of their last games for England. ‘There is always a better samurai around the corner,’ Jones told the media, and this applies to the players, as much as anyone.
If we take 32 as the rough average age of international retirement, by the 2023 World Cup Jonny May, Ben Youngs, Mark Wilson, Jamie George, Marler, Heinz, Kruis, Cole and Lawes will be 33 or older. Owen Farrell, Jonathan Joseph, Manu Tuilagi and Mako Vunipola will be 32. Some of those players will likely be retired or may be struggling to still mix it with the best.
There are also several key positions to sort out. As well as tighthead and scrumhalf, where we are crying out for a couple of long-term options to come into the squad, there is also question marks around the centres and fullback. Although relatively anonymous in the final, England have been transformed with Tuilagi back in the fold. But he is injury prone, might not make the next tournament and is currently so pivotal, the back line looks in danger of falling apart without him. We need another gainline-breaking ball carrier to try and fill his sizeable shoes.
I have always been a huge fan of Elliot Daly and although he has not been the most steady 15, argued what he brings in attack far outweighs his issues under the high ball or in defence. Unfortunately, I think the final showed we need another option. Anthony Watson might work well there, but beyond him there are wingers who could do a job but few out-and-out fullbacks. Regardless, long-term, Daly should be fighting for a wing or outside centre spot, unless he gets regular game time for Saracens at 15 to help his development.
Then there is the no small matter of the coach past 2021 when Jones’ contract expires. The idea was potentially to bring in another coach to work under Jones, ensuring a smooth transition. That looks unlikely, however, and seems counter-intuitive given the importance of building over the four-year cycle. Instead I hope Jones signs on for another four years. He has unfinished business. Let’s finish it in 2023 Eddie.
By Henry Ker