State of the Nation: England answer critics to almost pull off huge Rugby World Cup shock

James While
England head coach Steve Borthwick and number eight Ben Earl during the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

England head coach Steve Borthwick and number eight Ben Earl during the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Now that the dust has settled on another memorable Rugby World Cup, we bring you our State of the Nations pieces, continuing with Steve Borthwick’s England.

So near yet so far. But how many of you would have thought England would have gotten two points away from a Rugby World Cup final?

Tournament summary

Maybe if Borthwick had have left his starting props on England would have gone all the way. But it wasn’t to be. Written off before the tournament began, many scoffed at the coaching team talking about getting the squad tournament ready. Some raised eyebrows at a home defeat to Fiji in the warm-ups and most predicted disaster in the pool stages, with Argentina and Samoa tipped by many to progress.

However, England answered them loud and clear by producing a team as fit and as defensively organised as any other in the tournament. It may have been a limited game plan, there might have been an over-reliance on the boot to the eyes of the more esoterically minded watcher, but this team moved from power-puff protagonists to steely-strong survivors, using every ounce of simple rugby effectiveness to get themselves out of situations that would have been out of their grasp only three months previously.

Resilience might be the word that characterised their campaign. Indeed, it couldn’t have got off on a worse start as star flanker Tom Curry enjoyed precisely two minutes of his second World Cup campaign until a red card for an accidental head clash was waved in the Sale player’s direction. With Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola already suspended for incidents pre-tournament, this took England’s squad down by 10% but with George Ford steering the ship as his skipper watched on, victory against Argentina – an outstanding performance with only 14 men for 78 minutes – and a convincing win versus Japan saw England two from two with their bigger guns set to return.

Farrell’s reselection ahead of the outstanding form of his boyhood chum Ford may have got some criticism on social media and elsewhere, but the star Sarrie returned to deliver a commanding performance, including 16 points from the boot, and demonstrated the leadership and game control that he offers. Some might disagree with the manner in which he manages a game of rugby, but pragmatism and an iron will to win are at the centre of his being and he’s not one to waste words on orthography when the headlines are all about victories.

With a hard fought win against Samoa, England met their August nemesis Fiji in the quarter-finals and delivered a performance of control and intellect as both of their centres crashed over in the first half to seal a win. We saw the experiment of Marcus Smith at full-back, and witnessed both Ben Earl and Courtney Lawes putting in world-class performances in the back-row against the wonderful Levani Botia and his breakaway colleagues – Earl making a mockery of those that suggested he was too lightweight to play as a Test eight.

The mighty Springboks in the semi-final was England’s reward for their win. Surely this was a formality? Isn’t it just a case of how many our boys are whipped by? With England’s cricketers facing the Proteas on the same day bets were offered on which South African team would score quickest – the batters or the wingers?

However, as a great songwriter once observed “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way” and Borthwick’s men made their fans proud as they were on the brink of causing the biggest upset in the 2023 tournament until the ‘Bomb Squad’ came onto the Paris pitch, exploding into action and reminding us all why they were called thus.

A word for Dan Cole and Joe Marler; two inseparable pals off the pitch, they demonstrated that same quality in the front-row, overcoming the memories of 2019 as they gave England key solidity in the set-piece.

With a hard fought win in the Bronze Final, England left France with the results demonstrating palpable improvement. It might not have had the tries that some would have wanted, but for Borthwick it was a triumph, a clear demonstration of a huge step forward in the basics of set-piece and breakdown, and a promise of more to come in attack as the team progresses under his leadership.

Given England’s starting point, if this were a school report card it would be hard to give them less that B+ or A- for exceeding everyone’s expectations, most of all their own.

Standout players

Ben Earl wasn’t even backed to be a starter before the World Cup began but by the end of it he’d proven to be one of the best back-rows in the tournament: second in the tackle count, third in the carry count and fifth in the running stats. Crucially, he offers England an ability to carry in the wide channels, something missing from their back-row selections for many years and he looks a nailed on starter for the Six Nations.

Alongside Earl, Courtney Lawes reminded us all of his immense quality as a blindside flanker, literally bossing virtually every side he came up against until he simply ran out of gas in the semi-final. His legacy in the six shirt is the equal to that of the great Richard Hill and he leaves his international shift as a cap centurion, a two-time Lion and a world-class player respected by all in the game.

A row in front of them, Maro Itoje reminded us all that at his best there are few locks finer. His work in sacking mauls was an absolute standout, and he looked as sharp as a tack in terms of his jackaling, tackling and lineout work, even giving South Africa a torrid time in the semi as he and Lawes helped themselves to four of the Bok throws.

Alex Mitchell deserves an honourable mention, going from from no hope to standout, with the Saints scrum-half one of England’s key players, unsung yet unmoved as he was exceptional at nine. And there’s hope on the hooker horizon as Theo Dan’s meteoric rise continued as he left France as England’s second top try-scorer with three.

Statistic leaders

Farrell scored the most points in the tournament, after missing two matches, as he led the table with 75, one ahead of Thomas Ramos.

Henry Arundell may count himself unlucky to play only a handful of matches as he scored five tries v Chile, but some may say he needs to go looking for the ball a little more often if he’s to progress as a Test wing.

Earl’s 80 tackles saw him finish second to Marcos Kremer, with Itoje, back to his world-class best, also featuring at 10 in the tournament list. Earl also finished 10th in terms of clean breaks and fifth in terms of carries, showing his brilliance on both sides of the ball.

Success story

You might think that Lawes’ retirement will leave a gaping hole on the blindside and as an option in the second-row. However, the emergence of George Martin, arguably England’s best forward against the might of the Springboks, means that Borthwick has a like-for-like replacement, and a man that thrives on melting and folding opponents in the same manner as Lawes has for the last 14 years. Martin will be out of the game with a knee injury until Christmas but it seems England have another cap centurion on their hands in terms of his potential and we look forward to watching the adventures of the Tigers flank-cum-lock in the near future.

Main regret

England will rue two moments in the semi-final that simply turned the match after they had led for 63 minutes. Removing Cole and Marler when they were holding England’s set-piece together saw their scrum fall apart in the last quarter. Ellis Genge simply failed to cope with the power of Vincent Koch and crumpled, with Kyle Sinckler humbled by the power of Ox Nche on the tighthead.

And on the subject of replacements in that semi-final, as Vunipola lumbered on to replace the limping  Curry, his first moment of action was to become hopelessly flat-footed at a defending lineout to see RG Snyman leave the roly-poly number eight for dead and break through to score. Vunipola’s decline in form has only been matched by the increase in his waistline and one must observe that there was at least four other back-rows left at home in England that would have offered better value than the Saracen, whose Test form is at least four years behind him.


England v Argentina (won 27-10)
England v Japan (won 34-12)
England v Chile (won 71-0)
England v Samoa (won 18-17)
England v Fiji (won 30-24)
England v South Africa (lost 15-16)
England v Argentina (won 26-23)

READ MORE: State of the Nation: Can Ireland rebuild after more Rugby World Cup misery?