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Borthwick’s actual England job begins now with a team only just starting out | England rugby union team

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So they weren’t the most handsome England team to take to the pitch, or the most charismatic, daring, devilish or successful. They didn’t put 19 points on the All Blacks in the semi-finals, didn’t go the length of the field to score in the far corner against Australia in the quarters, didn’t win the World Cup with a drop goal off the wrong foot in the last minute of extra time. But when it was all over, after one last, long, 80 minutes against Argentina at the Stade de France on Friday night, they were happy and proud with what they had done these last few weeks, ready to toast what they had won and lost together.

Six days earlier England were nine points up with 12 minutes left to play against South Africa in the semi-final. Painful as what happened next was, and will always be, the players who won’t get another chance are old enough, and honest enough, to know that their team wasn’t quite good enough to take that one. And the players who will get another now know that much more about what they will need to do when it comes. This side had grit, and smarts, and a set piece and a screw-you attitude, and it got them about as far as was fair. Further, even, if you ask the Irish and French fans who booed them all through Friday night.

As you might if you had seen your team play the way those two have over the past four years only to run smack bang into New Zealand or South Africa in that sort of form in the quarters, while England enjoyed the soft side of draw. But nothing’s given in Test rugby, everything is earned. England’s route through this tournament was a reward for their form in 2019 and 2020, when they were the second-best team in the world. Think of it as a parting gift to England from Eddie Jones, one he was probably hoping to be able to use himself before the divorce. It was worth almost every penny of the £800,000 the RFU spent on the settlement.

Jones’s own World Cup with Australia was a good reminder of the old truth that however easy you think it should be, you still need to beat the team in front of you. England did, six times out of seven. They won as many matches in these last eight weeks as they did in the entire year before the tournament, when their record was played 15, won six, lost eight, drew one. It was only 84 days ago they went down 20-9 to Wales in Cardiff, and 63 since they were beaten for the very first time by Fiji at Twickenham. They started this tournament as the third-best team on their own island, and finished it as the third-best in the World Cup.

So the Rugby Football Union is not going to shift so very many downloads off the back of what they did in the weeks in between. The highlights will include George Ford’s drop goal against Argentina, Henry Arundell’s five tries against Chile, Ford’s other drop goal against Argentina, the try Courtney Lawes scored against Japan from a bungled pass that ricocheted off Joe Marler’s face, Ford’s third drop goal against Argentina, Danny Care’s 73rd-minute winner against Samoa (who were down to 14 men), and Owen Farrell’s drop goal against the Springboks. Good luck packaging that lot for the TikTok generation.

But there is a lot to admire about them for all that. It was there in the way Ford seized hold of that match against Argentina, the best Test he’s played, and then gave way, uncomplainingly, to his great mate Farrell when the latter was ready to play again. It was there in the way Dan Cole and Marler took on the Springbok scrum and won, in the way Care threw himself into that last minute tap-tackle on Neria Fomai against Samoa, and laughed afterwards that he knew he had to do it after celebrating his try like Alan Shearer in front of the Gallowgate End. And it was there in the furious tackling of George Martin, the rumbling thunder of Ben Earl breaking off the back of the scrum.

England’s Ben Earl breaks away to score a try against Argentina
Players such as Ben Earl, shown breaking away to score a try against Argentina, will be a big part of England’s rebuild under Steve Borthwick. Photograph: Paul Harding/Getty Images

It was there, most of all, in the quiet, calm, composure of Steve Borthwick, who made himself available for the hospital pass the RFU’s executives bunged at him last winter (“Here, Steve catch this, and oh, watch out here come the Springboks!”) when they sacked Jones with eight months to go before a tournament he had spent more than three years building towards.

Unfortunately for Borthwick, his actual job, the one he was always meant to take on, starts now. England made it this far playing a simple and effective style which was tailored for tournament rugby. It mostly involved the cunning ruse of kicking the ball away every time they got it and then tackling like their lives depended on it. Call it the dope-a-dope. It very nearly outfoxed the Springboks but Test rugby moves fast and, even now, there will be analysts poring over it, planning a way around it. Warren Gatland, Gregor Townsend and Andy Farrell will all have their own ideas ready for the Six Nations.

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Borthwick’s England will need to prove they have more in them, that they can go beyond the limits of the system they have been working in. They will have to do it, too, without Ben Youngs, Lawes and a handful more who have been in the team through the last decade, such as Cole and Marler, and maybe Manu Tuilagi and Jamie George, members of a generation who fell just short of the best in the world.

But after the past few weeks in France it is at least possible, for the first time in four years, to look at the team and see something new growing up underneath, in Earl, in Martin, in in Alex Mitchell and Marcus Smith and Freddie Steward. One England team finished in this World Cup, but another is only just starting out.

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