Wales coach Warren Gatland suggested that some teams deliver their best Rugby World Cup performances in the semi-finals. While England head coach Eddie Jones dismissed that claim, it proved to be true in his team’s case.
So impressive in defeating New Zealand 19-7 in the semi-finals, they came up way short of South Africa in the final after seeing their normally strong scrum shredded in a nightmare first half.
Now the question is, will Jones stay as head coach having failed to deliver the World Cup or continue for one more year to ensure the lessons learned in Japan become part of the DNA of the squad? The Australian guided the team into the final but they did not have the necessary tools to do the job and the lack of a set-piece platform will be hard for the entire coaching staff to take. But England were the youngest team to play in a World Cup final in the professional era and they will come again – with or without Jones.
Their Pool C campaign looked fraught with danger on paper but the most difficult assignment against France was cancelled because of Typhoon Hagibis and England finished top. They then had to overcome Australia and New Zealand to reach the final.
Central to the all-important first win against Tonga in Sapporo was a two-try contribution from Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi, whose career seemed to have been wrecked by injuries. He was a player reborn and ready to add real attacking firepower to an England midfield that would be ever-changing throughout the campaign.
USA and Argentina both had men sent off in what became straightforward wins for England, whose own impressive disciplinary record was a feature of their run to the final.
In the quarter-finals England were just too clinical for Australia, with the decision to play Henry Slade at centre justified while Jonny May marked his 50th cap with two crucial tries. Farrell was magnificent with the boot and has shown himself to be a top-quality player, and leader. Unfortunately, his troops could not back up their win over New Zealand and the Webb Ellis Cup went to South Africa.
Jones is always interesting, challenging, fearless and spiky. His press conferences were rarely boring and often hilarious. Of course, he knows how to play to a gallery and loves to wind up the opposition.
When he was not praising the All Blacks for being the greatest ever sports team and patting their head coach Steve Hansen on the back, he was claiming there was a spy at England training before they played the reigning champions.
Smoke and mirrors were extensively used but Jones also revealed, at times, just how much he cares for this squad of players who believe absolutely in his ability. They were his players, his coaching staff and he defended them to the hilt while making some big selection calls throughout the campaign.
Losing the final, however, has cast some doubt on his future.
Player of the tournament
While it is hard to look past Maro Itoje, who was class and consistency personified, the vote goes to Tom Curry, below, the youngest player in the squad who turned himself into a wonderful force of nature alongside back-row colleague Sam Underhill. Curry not only learned to play in a different role, he delivered a series of compelling performances full of aggression and commitment. Time after time he would pick himself up and get straight back into the maelstrom with little regard for the danger or pain. What marked Curry out as a special player was his ability to think coolly under pressure and make the right decisions about when to try to steal the ball to ensure he did not give away needless penalties.
Best moment off the field
Even before Ben Spencer arrived in Japan to increase the 31-man squad by one more player, England had an unofficial 32nd member of their World Cup squad in the form of Japanese scrum-half Genki Okoshi. Genki and members of the Suntory Sungoliath team – which has close links with England head coach Jones – provided important training opposition for the squad. This was particularly important when players were injured and the Suntory extras helped to keep Jones’s men on their toes.
Genki won the England players over with his enthusiasm and commitment and, as a reward, at the end of his final training run – he had worn a blond wig to give a good impression of Springbok No.9 Faf de Klerk during training – Ben Youngs presented Genki with a jersey signed by the whole squad and a ticket to the final.
Best moment on the field
England reached a new level in defeating New Zealand 19-7 in the semi-finals. Although they could not repeat it in the final, it is a glimpse into the future, as it featured many of the young players who will form the bulk of the squad at RWC 2023 in France. Men such as Underhill, Curry and Kyle Sinckler gained invaluable experience in a performance that set the standard for everyone else.
The 2020 Six Nations Championship gives England the chance to try to confirm their status as the second best team in the world. If Jones has decided he needs a new challenge then it will be one of the most intriguing championships ever staged, with possibly five of the six head coaches new to the job.
With the England players contracted primarily to their clubs, they will go into Premiership action and that could affect their form in the Six Nations after such a long build-up to the World Cup and a seven-match campaign that ended in disappointment. A new head coach may decide to move players on and that kind of disruption needs to be managed well, as this RWC 2019 squad has created an excellent team spirit.
Quotes of the tournament
“Three weeks ago, we were hopeless, I was going to get the sack, Owen (Farrell) couldn’t kick a goal. So we don’t tend to listen to that noise, as important as the media is, we don’t tend to listen to it.”– Eddie Jones in typical form.
‘Helping with the urine for the hydration test in the morning isn’t a great job. One of our strength and conditioning coaches normally does it and you have to assist him by wearing plastic gloves to receive these nice warm pots from all the players. It’s not the way anyone wants to start the morning.” – Flanker Sam Underhill on his punishment duties handed down by the tour court.
Beat Tonga 35-3
Beat USA 45-7
Beat Argentina 39-10
Beat Australia 40-16
Beat New Zealand 19-7
Lost to South Africa 32-12
By the numbers
0 – the number of times Eddie Jones has lost to Australia as England head coach. He enjoyed a seventh straight win in the quarter-finals in Oita.
5 – The number of minutes Saracens scrum-half Ben Spencer played at the Rugby World Cup. he arrived in Japan on the Monday before the final as a replacement for the injured Willi Heinz, and came off the bench in the 75th minute.
2 – the number of English Premiership rugby players who were given special dispensation to miss matches to be able to watch their brothers in the Rugby World Cup final. Sale Sharks released Ben Curry, identical twin of flanker Tom, and Marcus Watson, brother of winger Anthony, was released to fly out by Wasps.