England’s departure from the Rugby World Cup was marked by a sense of pride, but it will take more than determination to win over the public. This was stated by Jonathan Liew.
What a group of enthusiastic young men. Let’s welcome them back with garlands and ribbons, these courageous English champions on unfamiliar territory. Steve Borthwick, all is forgiven. This is a blow to the critics and those who doubted. Sports can be harsh, with small differences making all the difference. Despite this, England will leave the World Cup this weekend with their pride and honor intact, their future secured, and their fans captivated. However, they will not leave with the one thing they came for.
After England processed their close 16-15 loss to South Africa in the semi-final on Saturday, the final point seemed like a small inconvenience. Owen Farrell shared his pride in being English, to which scrum-half Alex Mitchell replied with enthusiasm about their campaign. Despite initial doubts about their performance, the team proved themselves and may have even won over some of their critics throughout the World Cup.
It may be necessary to take a step back and gain perspective. It appears that there is confusion between the successful outcome and the actual journey, which was not as exciting, admirable, or well-executed as it may seem. There is potential in the team to learn from their past experiences and make a strong comeback in Australia in 2027, but only if they focus on the right lessons.
England advanced to the semi-finals after defeating a significantly weaker Argentina, Japan, Chile, Samoa, and Fiji. This feat does not have the makings of legendary status. It was largely due to an easy draw made even easier by Australia’s early elimination. Despite their valiant efforts, they were ultimately defeated by the first top-tier team they faced, who had a bench full of talent that English rugby could only wish for. Therefore, it begs the question, what exactly is being hailed as a celebration here?
Certainly not the rugby itself. Stylistically, the gulf between England and the very best in the world has rarely been wider. England kicked away 93% of their possession on Saturday night, and spent a total of 73 seconds in the South Africa 22. They registered the slowest ruck speed of the entire tournament (narrowly beating the record mark they set against Samoa). It was the first time at this World Cup that a team played an entire match without registering a single line break.
It was nearly successful. However, it raises questions about England’s status as a rugby powerhouse if their only strategy for advancing in a tournament is to minimize their vulnerability. Is it acceptable for a well-funded team to be satisfied with playing such a restricted, unadventurous, and unattractive style of game? During the World Cup, England set a very low standard for themselves and barely met it. If Borthwick truly wants to involve the public and build a strong bond between the team and the country it represents, he must offer more than just determination, effort, and annoyance.
This is the unanswerable dilemma that has troubled English rugby for decades. What is the ultimate goal of this team? Why is it beneficial for England to achieve victories in rugby matches? Why should individuals who are not currently interested in the sport become invested in it? Why should a gifted athlete with a variety of athletic options choose this particular sport? In essence, there has been much discussion in recent weeks from England’s players and coaches about the support they have received from the public. Looking ahead to the next four years, what contributions can they make to our country?
All of these issues are connected. The fact that 8.7 million people watched the television broadcast does not necessarily indicate a lack of interest in the sport. The English fans I have encountered in France do not fit the stereotypes often portrayed by fans of other sports. Similar to the players, they come from various regions and backgrounds. So why do many people still feel that this team does not represent them?
The reason behind this is partially due to the influence of commercial interests on the sport in England. Many people have expressed dissatisfaction with the limited chances to see the team play for those who do not live close to Twickenham. However, with the regional game facing difficulties, Twickenham and its expensive hospitality options serve as a crucial source of income for the Rugby Football Union.
Similarly, the sport has a long-standing dependence on private schools, which contributed to more than half of the players on England’s World Cup team. Athletes such as Lewis Ludlam, Ollie Lawrence, and Billy Vunipola all started out in public schools before receiving private scholarships. How many promising prop players and talented athletes have been overlooked as a result? Despite government neglect and rising expenses, this parasitic and fundamentally flawed system continues to exist because there is a lack of creativity in finding a better alternative.
It may be difficult to recall now, but England’s journey in the World Cup began amidst a lack of spectators, as more than 30,000 tickets remained unsold for their loss against Fiji at Twickenham. This, rather than their impressive performance on Saturday, likely reflects the current state of English rugby. So while one can be proud and receive praise for almost completing their task, it seems that the most challenging part is still ahead.