‘This is the best England side we've ever had, isn’t it?’
This is the best England side we’ve ever had, isn’t it? I mean forget 2003, or Grand Slam victors, forget that silver medal team of 2019 that ousted the All Blacks so succinctly, this is it: this is the team that we should always remember.
Why? Well, let me tell you.
Steve Borthwick, their head coach, along with assistants Kevin Sinfield and Richard Wigglesworth, have had very little time to do anything. They started this year, at the end of a World Cup cycle, with a side that wasn’t functioning very well, and have quickly created miracles. Sure, it hasn’t been plain sailing and maybe not everyone was on board with the way things were being achieved, but that doesn’t matter.
England are the only undefeated team left in the World Cup. Everyone else has been beaten. Yeah, the draw etc, but England have already beaten one of the other four semi-finalists, comfortably. The coaching team have done brilliantly, on borrowed time and with pretty limited resources. They didn’t have the time to blood new players and rely on some of the talent that exists in the Premiership.
They’ve done it with a group of players who are, let’s face it, a little past their prime. This coaching set-up has stood by all these players, stuck to their guns and they are one win away from the final. That is an extraordinary achievement. Far better than winning it with a group of really great players.
Players haven’t really known who was being picked when, and even where. We can all name the French, Ireland, Springbok and All Black best XV. Can we with England? Not a chance. There is no certainty that England players can train with – no assurance that their place is secure.
They’ve even started a player in a position he hasn’t played at club level. What that must do is make it really challenging. Take Freddie Steward, one of the most nailed-on of choices England had before the competition kicked off and now he can’t even get in the team. And that’s not through poor performance. Ben Youngs was a certainty I thought for this competition but we’ve not seen hide nor hair of him. George Ford! Easily one of the best flyhalves in the competition, not even given a sniff in the quarter-final.
It must be so tough to play for a team where these types of players are being circumvented. The 2003 team picked itself. It gave everyone the comfort of knowing where they were. Everyone knew their role, what was expected of them. Not with this England team, there is no such luxury. That is why I feel this side must be viewed as one of the best ever.
The players have had to cope with a lot. It’s tough enough at a World Cup but this group have had to do it without much support from back home. The media have been pretty sceptical about their chances and have poked holes in a few of the ideas and options England have taken. This has led to a large amount of apathy from supporters and I know the players feel this.
But they’ve dug deep, continued to rebut stupid questions and really looked after each other. This is really difficult and much more challenging than playing for a team that everybody gets behind. Support is everything to a player, it takes individuals to new heights and while generally, the fans have kinda made the right noises, the lack of belief from some quarters does come through. To achieve a last-four berth with all that going on is unbelievable. This makes them a far better team than previous ones, who were heralded everywhere they went.
Which brings me to Owen Farrell. He is England’s captain and on Sunday, in Marseille, when his name was read out, he was roundly booed. Admittedly, this may not have been all England fans but there were some dressed in white who heckled their fly half and captain. Do you know how tricky it must have been for Farrell to find his focus after that? Lesser men would have crumpled into a heap on the changing room floor or at the least packed their bag and foxtrot-oscared their way out of the stadium.
But no, he put his head down and played one of the most accomplished games he has at this World Cup. He was excellent, despite the way he must have been feeling. That wasn’t easy. Sure, George Ford is a great player and maybe worth a go in the Number 10 shirt, but that’s not Faz’s choice. He was picked by Borthwick to do a job, was heckled and booed, and then still went out and did it. He even dropped a goal. Not that it’ll be remembered. That is infinitely tougher than say, Jonny Wilkinson had it, with everyone fawning over him everywhere he went, cheering every ball he kicked, with women writing to him professing their undying love, with full-grown men naming their firstborns after him. Playing well when you have that sort of entourage is easy. Farrell is pretty much despised everywhere he goes. How impossible must it be to generate the types of performances he has, knowing that? I wonder if Owen will be fronting the TV coverage in twenty years’ time. I doubt it, and yet he deserves to be considered.
This team have performed in spite of all this, at a World Cup tournament, which is being roundly described as the best ever. They’ve avoided defeat, ignored the naysayers, kept out the negativity, done what they could, played what was in front of them, and got further than many people ever thought was possible. When you consider where it started, what they’ve had to deal with, how difficult the conditions have been for them to achieve their best, there is only one logical conclusion: this England team are extraordinary.
So, against South Africa in the semi-final, things might conspire and they might lose. But even if they get within 20 points of such a together, well-structured, well-balanced, well-supported group, who have had their coaching team in place for years, it’ll be an era-defining victory in my book.
And if they win it? Well, there will be no argument. This is the best England Rugby team ever.