England must face farewell tour before focusing on future after World Cup heartbreak

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PARIS, France — About 15 hours after England fell to their agonising 16-15 defeat to South Africa, the hurt was still evident on Steve Borthwick’s face. He’d already watched the game back twice, but was trying to turn attention to their bronze medal match against Argentina.

There’s nothing beyond that match quite yet. It’s not yet the time for a grand appraisal of the state of English rugby, nor was it the moment to salute those players whose Test careers only have 80 minutes left. That’ll all come in time, as there’s a job still to do in Paris, but the reality is, there’s only one more chance to see this England group together.

Friday’s bronze medal match against Argentina will be this squad’s last hurrah. Some of the staples of this team will either retire from Test duty, be retired or slip off into the murky pool of selection purgatory — they’re the group who are at a Test-playing age, but will be past the apex of their career when the next World Cup comes around in 2027.

That feeling of impending finality helped fuel that journey to the semifinal — Joe Marler and Dan Cole referenced this before their quarterfinal with Fiji. They knew their Test careers were likely coming to an end after these six weeks in France and they wanted one last glorious shot at winning the sport’s biggest prize. As All Blacks scrum-half Aaron Smith said after their win over Argentina, all players dream of going out on their shield like Richie McCaw did in 2015.

But for England and those players who are at the end of their Test careers, while the greatest prize eludes them, some will have Grand Slams to their name, the silver medal from the 2019 World Cup and they hope the bronze medal this time around.

As the full-time whistle went on the dramatic semifinal, the Stade de France pitch was like one of those chaotic Renaissance scenes. You had a tussle going on around the halfway line involving half the players. Elsewhere, some England players had already slumped to the ground distraught and exhausted, unable to raise themselves for one last scrap. The desolation had broken through; adrenaline subsiding to be replaced by heartbreak. But for players like Freddie Steward and Ollie Lawrence, they will get another shot.

“In adversity, there’s some seed there that can be something brilliant in the future,” Borthwick said an hour or so after full time. “Right now, it’s too early to find that seed. We’ll make sure we find it — we’ll take it and we’ll grab that and make sure it makes us stronger in the future.”

It’s been a collective England effort to get themselves within a point of beating the Springboks. But an hour or so after full time, players were reflecting on their individual stories, their journeys to getting there to being within touching distance of a second World Cup final in as many tournaments and contemplating their own rugby transience.

Previously, some players towards the end of their careers have ploughed on into the next cycle as teams prioritise the first two years to ensure a decent seeding in the World Cup draw. But this time around, the draw for 2027 will take place in 2026, meaning coaches could opt to prioritise players who will be there in four years’ time, rather than those who can help them on their journey to that point.

Jonny May, 33, had already said at the start of October this was his last World Cup, and “most likely my last time playing for England.” Marler said before the Fiji game there was a collective bond between the older players was motivating them. “The likes of Ben Youngs, Courtney Lawes, Danny Care, Coley [Dan Cole], guys that we’ve been together since we were 16 or 17. We’ve got close bonds to motivate us and drive us on to make this last memory special.”

Talking soon after the South Africa defeat, Care wasn’t going to draw a line under his England career – it’s just not his way. “I’ve been in and out like a yoyo for a long time,” Care said. “I’m always her and available. I’ve got the year with Harlequins. If there’s a need for me or if I can help still, then I’ll never say no. We’ll see what happens.” For his scrum-half partner Youngs, he is the record caps holder in England men’s rugby with 126 caps and has enjoyed an incredible career.

Cole’s redemption story is also remarkable, given for so long it looked like the 2019 World Cup final would be his last showing in an England shirt. It was a painful day for him, England losing the match in the scrum, but his form at Leicester saw him get a recall under Borthwick and there he was starting the semifinal four years on. He may yet have another Six Nations in him “I’ve known Coley a very long time,” Borthwick said. “After I left England [as assistant coach] and joined Leicester Tigers [as head coach in February 2020] he was a hugely significant player in terms of turning the fortunes of that great club around, and an incredible supporter of me as head coach ion terms of what I was trying to do with the team.

“I’m very grateful for that. When I came into here, he didn’t take too much persuading to come and join me with England. He won his 100th cap in the Ireland game. What a terrific servant of English rugby he is, and continues to be.”

But the one who did draw a line under his England career was Lawes. The 34-year-old has captained his country, left body and soul in the jersey and was monumental against South Africa. But now comes the time to prioritise his family. “This was my last World Cup. The kids are at that age where they need their dad around,” Lawes said. “It will be good to be with them more, to provide some well needed structure to the mob.

“It’s a bit of an end of an era, but it’s been a real honour for me to represent England for so long. It flies by. I’m proud of the journey I’ve been on. It’s not always been the ups. Plenty of downs in there, but I’ve pushed through.

“I’m not an emotional person really, but it’s just been a huge honour for me, to be honest. To be able to finish with this group, it’s something I’ll treasure forever.”

When England start their Six Nations campaign away at Italy on February 3, there’ll be plenty of notable absentees and new faces. David Ribbans and Joe Marchant will move to France after this World Cup and are unavailable. The same goes for Jack Willis who’s at Toulouse but Henry Arundell is available despite playing for Racing 92 as he was part of the London Irish group who were left without a club when they went bust in June.

Then there are the old guard like Cole, Ben Youngs and Lawes, the ones who were there back in 2011 and have been coached by Martin Johnson, Stuart Lancaster, Eddie Jones and now Borthwick. Marler and Care could also slip off into the sunset.

But Borthwick wants a win against Argentina on Friday, sentimentality can wait. “The fact that we had more players aged 25 and under than any other team in the semifinals, it says there are a lot of good young players around who have benefited from this experience,” Borthwick said. “There are some players with some experience who still have plenty of years in an England shirt ahead of them and I think this game on Friday night is another important game for us.

“It is important for so many reasons. I want players playing big games at World Cups and I want them having that experience, and I think that’s another aspect which will benefit all these players and this team as it moves forward.”

But treasure the occasion, as you won’t see this group together again. For some, it’s their farewell tour, and there won’t be an encore.

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