OLIVER HOLT: Never before have so many apologies been owed to England

OLIVER HOLT: Never before have so many apologies been owed by so many to so few… ridiculed before the World Cup England came agonisingly close to one of their greatest EVER upsets against South Africa

  • England rugby team were heavily underestimated at the start of the tournament
  • South Africa overcame a 15-6 deficit in the last ten minutes to win 16-15
  • England defied expectations, narrowly missing out on a spot in the final  

Never in the field of sporting conflict have apologies been owed by so many to so few. Not in English team sports anyway. Not when the odds were stacked against an England side so heavily.

Not when most of the media, the fans who booed captain Owen Farrell again before the game, and the bookmakers, who had South Africa as 13-point favourites, had given them no chance. Not when they laughed at those odds and fought their way to the very, very brink of a stunning redemption.

Ridiculed and mocked at the start of this tournament, written off by most on the eve of their semi-final with South Africa, Steve Borthwick’s England side came desperately, heart-breakingly close to achieving one of the nation’s greatest ever upsets at the Stade de France.

That redemption reached out to them as they outplayed and outfought the mighty world champions but the Springboks overhauled a 15-6 deficit in the last ten minutes to win 16-15. It felt cruel but that, ultimately, is the kind of resilience and depth and strength that has made them favourites to win this tournament.

Ahead for the vast majority of a game in which most had expected them to be steam-rollered by South Africa, just as our cricketers had been earlier in the day, England were only overhauled in the dying moments of what turned out to be an epic semi-final on a sodden night in the French capital.

England’s Freddie Steward (left) looks dejected after the Rugby World Cup semi final match

England were idiculed and mocked at the start of this tournament, written off by most on the eve of their semi-final with South Africans

England were only overhauled in the dying moments of what turned out to be an epic semi-final in the Stade de France

An epic because England defied all those expectations that had cast them as cannon fodder. An epic because every one of their players played the game of the lives. They defused the Bomb Squad, for most of the game, but in the end, they could withstand it no more. In the end, it was that outcome so beloved of English sport: heroic failure.

They could not quite maintain their lead in the end. But it was so, so close. And even if it will be cold comfort to them now, they won defeat with honour. They were a laughing stock when they arrived in France. No one is laughing at them now.

It is only eight weeks ago that they lost to Fiji at Twickenham but those eight weeks feel like a lifetime even if England could not quite hold on. The memory of what they achieved here, through force of will, should sustain the recovery that began in France and must now continue through to next year’s Six Nations Championship.

Search for an analogy and this is what it felt like sitting in the stands as England dismantled the world champions’ belief system and destroyed their skill set: it felt like seeing an invalid wrapped in bandages ripping them off, casting aside his crutches and hurtling into the fray.

It felt like seeing Verbal Kint limping down the street at the end of The Usual Suspects and suddenly shrugging off his palsy and straightening his leg. It felt like the kind of transformation few saw coming.

Joe Marler looked disappointed on the full-time whistle after failing at the very last of a thrilling contest in Paris

South Africa’s players and England’s players confront each other at the end of the semi-final

England were brilliantly bloody-minded in the first half. It was not pretty but no one ever thought it would be. The best anyone could have hoped for from this England team was that they would stay within sight of their opponents in the opening 40 minutes and they exceeded that expectation.

They played at their best and beyond it. And they rattled South Africa in the process. England forced turnover after turnover. George Martin produced a crunching tackle on Franco Mostert that got England fans on their feet and earned him some hearty slaps on the back from his teammates.

South Africa made uncharacteristic mistakes, unsettled by how well England were playing. Freddie Steward, as usual, was meticulous under the high ball. England looked relaxed and comfortable. Jamie George laughed in the face of the South Africa forwards early in the half when tempers boiled over.

It was a sign of just how discomforted the South Africans were that they replaced fly half Manie Libbok with Handre Pollard ten minutes before half time. The world champions were already worried the match was slipping away from them. They knew they had to be ruthless.

England ploughed on. South Africa are often referred to as a machine but they looked like a malfunctioning machine at the Stade de France. They looked like a machine broken by the exertions of the epic victory over France last weekend. England had the power and the relentlessness.

There was something about them in that first half. They played with the assurance and the mood of a team that knew they had the measure of their opponents. They played like a team in which every single one was determined to have the game of his life.

For all the criticism that Borthwick has received, that first half was a great tribute to him and his coaches and the confidence they had instilled in their players. They were not in awe of the Springboks. From the first minute, this match played out as if the Springboks were in awe of them.

Ben Earl looks dejected after the match, which saw England keep the upper hand for much of the tie

England’s Owen Farrell, George Ford and Ellis Genge after the semi-final defeat in France

It was, at least, another stirring episode in a tournament that has felt it has had the air sucked out of it for the last seven days.

Since France’s exit to the South Africans last weekend, this World Cup has been largely forgotten in its own land. It has become an unwelcome reminder of what might have been for the host nation.

The front page of sports daily L’Equipe on Saturday morning was devoted not to rugby but to big pictures of Ousmane Dembele and Patrick Vieira and a preview of PSG’s Ligue 1 match with Strasbourg. There was very little tournament buzz in Paris. Only a few bars showed the semi-finals on big screens.

The weather didn’t help, of course, but there were scarcely any rugby fans on the streets of the French capital for the New Zealand-Argentina game on Friday night. There were empty seats at the Stade de France for that game. It was the same on Saturday evening.

Well, pity those who did not show up last night. Those who were here saw a sporting classic that was resolved only in the last three minutes when Pollard sent a mammoth kick through the posts from near half way. England, finally, had no response. But they had already given their answer. They might have been denied respect before but they will be denied it no longer. In defeat, they had found honour.

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