Steve Borthwick grows and Ben Earl stars as England defy World Cup expectations

By Sports Desk October 27, 2023

England went within a whisker of qualifying for a second successive World Cup final only for South Africa’s Handre Pollard to shatter their dreams with a 79th-minute penalty.

The nail-biting 16-15 semi-final defeat which Steve Borthwick’s men led by nine points with 10 minutes remaining completed a tournament that surpassed expectations given their abysmal build-up.

Here, the PA news agency takes a closer look at a campaign concluded by the bronze final on Friday night.


Until they hit a Springbok-shaped roadblock, England were the only semi-final side with an unbeaten record. Overwhelming Argentina in the opener despite having Tom Curry sent off in the third minute was the highlight of a group campaign that produced a close shave against Samoa until Danny Care intervened with a try and try-saving tackle rescue act. Dangerous Fiji were formidable quarter-final opponents but Owen Farrell and Ben Earl excelled to see off the Islanders, setting up the showdown with South Africa. England fell to a heroic defeat by the world champions after the tide turned against them in the final quarter, undone by the power of the ‘Bomb Squad’. Overall their results were good, but they come with the caveat of being secured in the weakest pool and on the easier half of the draw.


Borthwick showed an assured touch in selection, culminating in some inspired picks for the semi-final. Hardman rookie George Martin started at lock and delivered a coming-of-age performance while the inclusion of veteran props Dan Cole and Joe Marler was a masterstroke against the hard-scrummaging Springboks. England’s undoing was that Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler were not the front rows to face down the Bomb Squad, but they were the best support available to Borthwick. Owen Farrell ultimately won his fly-half duel with George Ford and provided compelling confirmation of his Test credentials, while the experiment of playing fly-half Marcus Smith at full-back was audacious and to the credit of the management, even if it was never a viable option against South Africa. Ford and Farrell were paired together against Samoa, reviving their old creative partnership, but it was abandoned by Borthwick when the evidence indicated it no longer worked.

Star performers

Take a bow Ben Earl, the Saracens flanker who emerged as England’s best performer despite playing at number eight and having never started a Test until August. His explosive carrying and instinct for attack beg the question why was he repeatedly overlooked during the Eddie Jones era? Smith was mesmerising at full-back, Joe Marchant’s flair will be missed when he joins Stade Francais, thus making him unavailable for selection, and Maro Itoje showed that his health-related dip in form is over. Several players see their England odysseys end with the World Cup, among them the magnificent Courtney Lawes, a back row colossus who consistently stepped up on the biggest stage, and there have been important contributions from other stalwarts – Dan Cole and Danny Care among them.


By going out on their shields at the World Cup, Borthwick should have bought some time as he begins to shape his vision for Australia 2027, but it could get worse before it gets better. Choppy waters lie ahead as the retirement of stalwarts such as Lawes and Ben Youngs, the need to refresh the team and the lack of depth in certain positions – especially hooker where Jamie George has been forced to carry a huge burden alone – present challenges that begin with the 2024 Six Nations. But Borthwick is the right man to lead England forward and the only regret over his appointment in place of Eddie Jones was that it did not happen earlier than December.

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