England’s World Cup dreams evaporated in the cruellest fashion on Saturday night in Paris but the platform has been set for a brighter future according to coach Steve Borthwick.
Heading into their semi-final meeting with defending champions South Africa as big underdogs, England almost pulled off the upset, eventually falling short 16-15 at the Stade de France.
The Springboks, a week on from a one-point success against hosts France, took the lead for the first time two minutes from time thanks to a long-range Handre Pollard penalty, their scrum swinging the game in the second half.
But for long periods of the game, it was England’s meticulously planned approach which looked like it might pay off.
At one point in the second half, after Owen Farrell had landed a drop goal from nearly 50 metres on the angle, they led by nine points. Letting that lead slip brought inevitable disappointment, but Borthwick was quick to remind people of the age profile of his side after expressing his pride in the team.
He said: “I think the whole team performance was strong. We came with a plan to win the game but we fell a little bit short. But the players should be incredibly proud.
“That 23, 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. We put ourselves in a position to win against the world champions.”
England set the tone early on, challenging South Africa in the aerial battle from kick-off and building a lead through the boot of Farrell.
Of the seven players to whom Borthwick referred, second row George Martin and full-back Freddie Steward, both 22, were two of the most influential England players in that impressive opening 40 minutes.
They led 12-6 at the break, regularly regathering their own up-and-unders, while nullifying the Springbok maul.
Farrell’s drop goal pushed that lead to 15-6, only for South Africa to strike back in the final 15 minutes through an RG Snyman try and Pollard’s late penalty.
Even through the disappointment of defeat, Farrell echoed Borthwick’s view on where this team can go.
He added: “It’s different for everyone. This will be some people’s last World Cups and some people are going elsewhere.
“But I’m unbelievably proud of this group and what they’ve done over the last five months. Whatever happens going forward this team is going to be good.”