England face South Africa in the World Cup semi-finals on Saturday despite entering the competition amid rock-bottom expectations.
Here, we look at some of the questions surrounding their bid to relieve the Springboks of their crown.
What has happened?
England being the solitary standard bearers for the northern hemisphere at this stage of the World Cup was a fanciful prospect when they departed for France in late August, yet while France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales have fallen around them, they have advanced into the last four as the tournament’s only unbeaten side. It is some turnaround given their tribulations in the build-up.
Why was August so bad?
Maulings by Wales, Ireland and Fiji extended their losing streak to five defeats in six Tests, leading to fears that they would not even emerge from the World Cup’s weakest group. Suddenly clashes with Argentina, Japan and Samoa seemed like mountains to climb. The lowest ebb came in their tournament send-off at Twickenham when Fiji prevailed 30-22 in their first ever victory against England. Expectations were at an all-time low.
How did they turn it around?
Through a combination of good fortune and competence. Fiercest pool rivals Argentina were clueless and were routed even though England had Tom Curry sent off after 179 seconds, while Japan were a shadow of the team that lit up the 2019 World Cup. That meant by the time they faced a brilliant Samoa they had already qualified as group winners. England were blessed by being picked in the easier side of the draw – and there was no easier battleground than Pool D – but they also played smart rugby, faced down adversity and overall struck the right note in selection, even showing a flair for innovation by picking Marcus Smith at full-back that is a credit to the management.
What role has their conditioning played?
For all the despair of August, it is possible to caveat those results as details emerged after England’s arrival in France that the players had been subjected to unusually high training loads during the Test weeks. It drained them of energy, most noticeably against Ireland, with a view to ensuring they would peak for the key group match against Argentina – who they duly battered. The objective then was to be ready for the quarter-final, the stage by which their World Cup success would be judged, and on Saturday they edged a tense battle with Fiji that has provided the required pass mark.
Can they win it?
South Africa’s epic victory over France in the quarter-finals has seen the reigning champions installed as odds-on favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy via a conclusive win over England, but Steve Borthwick’s team have a puncher’s chance. The Springboks are a significant step up in class compared to any opponent they have faced, but England have the muscle to take them on up-front, field some genuine threats in attack – Smith, Ben Earl and Joe Marchant among them – and have developed the priceless knack of finding a way to win. Memories of being overwhelmed in Yokohama in 2019 will drive them on, as will the imminent retirement of a number of long-serving stars, but it remains colossal challenge.