By Jed Sexton
“It was embarrassing. It won’t go on the mantelpiece at home.” These were the words muttered by Joe Launchbury upon being awarded the man of the match on the 3rd October 2015 against Australia. Why you ask? His England side had just been humiliated on their home turf as the first side in the history of rugby to be knocked out in the group stage of their home World Cup. Four years and sixteen days later the Red Roses of England had the opportunity to avenge that fateful day at the Oita Stadium.
Since the last World Cup English rugby has come on leaps and bounds. The appointment of Australian Eddie Jones as coach off the back of his successful tenure as the Japanese coach has proved to be a stroke of genius from the RFU. His outspoken and unorthodox style has gone against the grain of previous England coaches, which has translated onto the pitch with a shift to a less structured but more expansive style of play. The success of this was evident with England climbing from 8th in the world rankings to 2nd in the first 12 months. By the start of the 2019 World Cup, Wales had managed to muscle their way in front of England with victory in the Six Nations at the start of the year. However, England’s masterclass performance against reigning Six Nations champions Ireland in February had given Jones’ men the confidence that on the given day they were capable of beating any team.
After Typhoon Hagibis swept through Japan causing multiple World Cup fixtures to be postponed including England’s encounter with France, it was time for the storm to return back on the rugby pitch with the quarter finals. A now well rested England side faced Australia once again, the eventual runners up from the tournament four years previous. Although neither side had showed their best in the pool stages, this game had all the ingredients for exciting match up with both coaches favouring more expansive attacking rugby.
The Wallabies enjoyed the lion’s share of the early possession before England slowly started to assert their dominance on the proceedings. Slick hands from the backs allowed pacey winger Jonny May to score two tries before half time to put England 17-9 ahead at half time. After the delicate touches of the first half, the men in white utilised their brute power after the interval with prop forward Kyle Sincklar bundling over the line to cancel out an early Australian try. This more or less put the game to bed and when Anthony Watson capitalised on a loose pass to make the score 40-16, coach Eddie Jones could start looking forward to England’s semi- final clash against either reigning world champions New Zealand or familiar foe Ireland.
Indeed the 2011 and 2015 World Cup winners showed why they are the favourites by dispatching a shambolic Irish outfit 46-14. The stage was now set in Yokohama City for what many thoughts would be tournament decider. The two sides have been the two most consistent sides in world rugby over the past four years with 5 tournament victories between them. The biggest pre-match talking point of the reselection of George Ford at fly-half, moving captain Owen Farrell to his less favourable position of centre.
The traditional Haka from New Zealand started proceedings; although it was England who came flying out of the traps. With just 97 seconds on the clock England took the lead with Manu Tuilagi try, laying down a real statement of their intent. England continued to control the first half, squandering a flurry of opportunities to build on their lead. Despite this, they edged their way to a 10-0 half time lead having shut down the potent All Blacks attacking threat very effectively. This theme continued into the second half before miscommunication gifted Ardie Savea New Zealand’s first points of the game and bring them within touching distance of England. However, this proved to be their last score of the game as England kept their composure to grind out a historic 19-7 victory. This was thanks largely to the tireless defence of young flankers Sam Underhill and Tom Curry as well as pinpoint kicking from Ford who more than justified his selection. The white knights of England had defeated the princes of rugby in New Zealand to secure a place in the final of the 2019 World Cup.
England will go into the Final as favourites against South Africa in a repeat of the 2007 World Cup final. The Springboks edged past Wales in the other semi-final in a scrappy encounter littered with errors; the polar opposite of the England game the day before. If England are to be crowned World Champions, they must stop South Africa’s impressive power game whilst also producing the quality rugby they are capable of. It will be a very different test than what they have faced before in this tournament, but can they do it? We will find out on 2nd November.