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Wednesday Oct 11, 2023

Opinion: The unpopular truth behind England's World Cup campaign

Behind perhaps South Africa and New Zealand, England have arguably some of the most vocal fans in world rugby. The key difference between the sets of supporters is, however, when the Springboks and the All Blacks lose, their fans believe they deserve to have won. But when England lose, their fans believe the whole team needs changing, otherwise, they’ll never win another rugby game again.

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Now, this article will aim to dispel those English fans from hitting the panic buttons.

This is not an article based on an opinion that England will go all the way and win the competition. It is also not a study into how this is the worst England team ever. What it is, is a look into the strengths, weaknesses, and genuine world standings that England find themselves in as they head into their quarter-final with Fiji.

England arrived at this World Cup in September with the whole world against them; they’d been beaten heavily by Fiji for the first time ever in their final warm-up match, they’d come through another poor Six Nations campaign, and they were hit by a surge of unfortunate and damaging injuries shortly before they had made their way to France.

Opening match – Argentina

The premonitions against Argentina were not kind; they were expected to be bested by a side that had beaten them only five times before. The previous match had been an Argentina victory on England’s home turf of Twickenham just a year prior, so the South American side knew that a win was within their grasp.

What played out on that Saturday evening in Marseille last month was far from the fairytale that Argentina had been expecting, in fact, it was a nightmare of errors and a tough England defence that flourished. Thanks to the boot of George Ford and the power of the England pack, the men in dark blue were able to take the opening victory that night – much to the jubilation of both players and fans.

It was from here that the atmosphere behind the side showed drastic improvement, with many comparing it to the euphoria that followed the football team through the 2018, 2021, and 2022 international tournaments. Short of shouting “It’s coming home”, there were echoes of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” being bounced around each and every pub, bar, clubhouse, and living room where TV sets were ceremoniously adorned.

Second match – Japan

Whilst the win was comfortably achieved against a Japanese side struggling to gain traction in the tournament, this match brought England fans back down to earth with what many considered an underwhelming performance. What must be noted, however, is that Japan’s inability to play their normal flamboyant style of rugby is indictive not of the aforementioned side, but of an England team able to strangle the opposition’s gameplan.

Much of the plaudits were once again given to an experienced and intelligent George Ford, but as a team performance, it had to be noted that England closed down hard and fast, giving the opposition little to no time.

Third match – Chile

This was to be England’s opportunity to show a style of rugby that suited the likes of New Zealand, Fiji, and Japan. Fast, flowing, exciting, and high scoring were the key attributes of such a performance, with the lads aiming to enjoy themselves and please those watching.

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With the greatest of respect meant for the Chilean players, they were out of their depth when it came to providing a real challenge for the men in white. They did put up a good fight for the first 20 minutes, however, and should be commended upon doing so. The cricket score placed upon them by the end of the match had ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ back on the playlist and the national side back in the hearts of each and every man, woman, and child in England.

Final pool stage match – Samoa

This was expected to be a relatively simple process for the English side building in confidence. The plan was simple, go out there, play the phases, and come away with a comprehensive victory. The reality of the occasion was much different.

Samoa saw England’s playbook and ripped it up without even opening the front cover. This was to be their final showing of the tournament and they were going to display it in their own way. They brought with them the power, the precision and the passion that Pacific Island nations are known for in their greatest exploits – this was almost one of them.

Despite the opinions and emotions behind such an occasion, England did not play poorly. In fact they displayed incredible courage, grit, and determination to dent such a dominantly powerful Samoan performance. To say that England were poor and lucky to win gives Samoa a great disservice.

The truth behind the England campaign

England head into their quarter-final match against Fiji with their own expectations and beliefs high, but those around them low. Despite the circus of negativity that surrounds them, their campaign could just as easily be a story of inspiration. They have overcome challenges at every hurdle and appear to have found a way to win that is just…theirs. It’s not exciting rugby, it’s not going to thrill neutrals, but it is going to threaten any team that dares to challenge them.

Cast your minds back to England’s unbeatable season of 2016 when the national side went 13 straight matches without defeat. The stats are impressive, but the manner of victory was possibly even more so. Each and every victory was hard fought, it was tight, and it was gritty. The odds on England coming through all 13 matches unscathed was unthinkable in hindsight – they should not have been able to do so. But the fact was that tough, determined side managed to grind out result and result every single time – an ability that this current set of players are working towards.

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This is not the greatest England side of all time, far from it. But they could well become the most dangerous England side if they are to be underestimated.

Samoa played some of the most intense rugby of the competition at the weekend, yet England managed, by the skin of their teeth, to make their way through it. This should give their upcoming opponents Fiji more to worry about than if they had just taken Samoa to the cleaners. England have now proved that they can beat these powerful Pacific Island nations even when they are put to the sword. Fiji will have to find another gear if they are to repeat their heroics of their World Cup warm up match.

Like I mentioned at the start of the article, this is not about an England side that are expected to win the competition, but they won’t be ones to go down easily.

France and Ireland are, I feel, far too strong for even the very best England performance. Both sides know how to beat England in recent times thanks to their regular meetings in the Six Nations, and they are, for me, the greatest two nations in the competition.

The All Blacks should also be too strong for England should they meet, however they will need to ensure that they play their own game rather than being dragged into England’s style.

The only ‘top 4’ side that could face a very real stumbling block against England would be the Springboks. Known for their aggressive defence and powerful attack, the Springboks will need to ensure their place kicks are on point as it would likely be a match dependent on territory and possession.

Steve Borthwick has not had years to prepare the squad for this tournament, but what he has done in the build up, is made the mistakes he has needed to make, and now he’s putting into practice the lessons he has learned.

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