England made amends for August’s defeat by Fiji at Twickenham in Sunday’s World Cup quarter-finalEngland men’s rugby fans may not have had much fun in the past year.
There was a disappointing Six Nations, a shaky World Cup preparation and a pool stage that threw up more questions than answers.
But in Marseille on Sunday, after a nerve-shredding World Cup quarter-final, there was joy.
Owen Farrell’s late drop-goal and penalty concluded a promising match with a tense end to deliver victory against Fiji.
It brought a pure joy reminiscent of England’s last World Cup knockout victory – a semi-final win against New Zealand in 2019.
The feeling may have tapered when the reality that they would have to face South Africa next after the Springboks’ sublime win against France hit later on Sunday.
But England started well – better than they have in a year – with monstrous defence, thrilling attack and high intensity.
Fiji struck with, as England head coach Steve Borthwick put it, “a couple of thunderbolts” as they scored two tries in quick succession to level things late on, but England found a way to win.
‘Find a way to win’ has become a buzz phrase for Borthwick and his men – captain Owen Farrell mentioned it at least three times in his post-match news conference.
“In a period of time not that long ago, the England team probably isn’t coming back to win that game,” Borthwick said.
“This team did. There is a smartness about the team, a composure led by this man (Owen Farrell).”
But the joy for fans flowed from more than just the dramatic finish. Maybe it was even sweeter because of the dour year they have lived through since Eddie Jones was prematurely sacked and Borthwick stepped up at the end of 2022.
Not much went the way of the home nations this weekend and England fans saw close neighbours suffer.
Wales could not bounce back when they were stunned by late Argentina tries. It was supposed to be Ireland’s time, until they lost to New Zealand.
They may be benefiting from a wildly unbalanced draw, but England are still one of the last four standing.
Their forwards punched holes in attack – Ben Earl in particular bringing the crowd to its feet with a late break – and bounced Fijians backwards in defence. The backline finally seemed to click.
As a former England international, a hallmark of Borthwick’s reign has been to praise the side’s support and repeatedly emphasise a desire to make the country proud.
“I’m really pleased for all the supporters,” he said after the win.
“What I sense here is that there’s a group of supporters that are behind this team and have been behind this team from the start of the tournament.”
Farrell’s boot sends England into World Cup semisSuch a difficult year has led to many inquests. With financial woes for several clubs, the entire English system has been questioned.
Borthwick has time and again come under the spotlight for his team selections, with much discussion about Farrell’s inclusion over George Ford at 10 this week.
With the resources and individual talent England have, many have asked why they are not as good as they should be.
In the end, maybe all that was the extra fuel England needed when holding off a final Fijian attack that surely left limbs and lungs burning.
“I think we’re developing a strong belief of finding a way to win,” Farrell said.
“There was no panic. There was no feeling sorry for ourselves, it was straight on to what’s next.
“After the first try (of Fiji’s two late on) it didn’t quite work but after the second one we managed to get ourselves into a position to win it.”
Immediately after the victory, Borthwick spoke of England being “written off”.
In his news conference, the former Leicester head coach batted back questions about a possible siege mentality and being underdogs against their semi-final opponents.
“I don’t really care what other people think of us,” Borthwick said. “I care about the development of the team.”
Prop Ellis Genge was less tight-lipped, telling BBC Radio 5 Live: “We fight for each other, you have got to go through some adversity to get to that.”
Any siege mentality going into Saturday’s semi-final will surely be strengthened by memories of the 2019 World Cup final loss to South Africa.
On Sunday, the Springboks showed that they, too, know how to win – and against much tougher opposition.
Faced with a frantic Parisian crowd, South Africa somehow came out on top of a topsy-turvy quarter-final.
Next weekend will be a different match and a different city. Holders South Africa await.
But Genge put it best: “Winning brings you together.”
Whatever happens in Paris next weekend, England fans gathered together in their joy on the streets of Marseille.
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