The cause for English hope amid their World Cup despair was epitomised on Saturday night by George Martin’s big shot on a rampaging Franco Mostert, which reverberated around the Stade de France and beyond.
That split-second statement of brutal intent represented a collision between two powerful men, and also between the present and the future of the national team.
It was a tackle which showed that England have some young forward clout to be reckoned with. It was the highlight of a night when we might just have witnessed the emergence of a next-generation Martin Johnson. It wouldn’t be the worst consolation, if that — in time — turns out to be the case.
England were shattered by this result, with good reason. They were heroic and committed and smart and precise for most of a rain-soaked semi-final, until the Springboks snatched victory from under their noses.
The better team did not prevail. England won just about every contest in the air and on the floor, until South Africa sent on Ox Nche to ransack their scrum and turn the tide.
George Martin putting in big shots show England Rugby’s future remains in good hands
Martin was in the thick of it when he came on, getting in the face of South Africans all game
But the impact of Martin was the main silver lining around a giant dark cloud. The rookie Leicester lock, thrown in by Steve Borthwick to start this momentous fixture, delivered a thunderous performance.
Several times, the 22-year-old threw his weight about to brutal effect, but none more so than when he flattened opposite number Mostert, at full tilt.
Asked about his favourite tackle of the night, Martin said: ‘The one on the line. That was good. I enjoyed that.’
Picking through the rubble of this near-miss, when England led 15-6 before a late slump, Borthwick was heartened by signs of promise for the years ahead.
‘The fact we had more players aged 25 and under than any other team in the semi-finals says there are a lot of good young players around who have benefited from this experience,’ he said.
‘I think there’s a lot of growth in this team. You’ve seen growth in this tournament. It hasn’t always been linear, or always been a step forward. Sometimes it’s not the straightforward path you want it to be. In the adversity, feelings and emotions of the game last night I know we’ll get stronger.’
Courtney Lawes has announced he will retire from international football after the World Cup
Jonny May will follow Lawes into international retirement once the World Cup is over
And what about Martin? How good could he be? ‘I think he’s got excellent potential and he’s already a top-quality player,’ added Borthwick.
‘He’s a young man who is developing and growing into his body. He has huge potential.’
A changing of the guard is imminent, but first England have one last game to play here. Borthwick won’t shift from his week-to-week mentality and for now he will ensure full focus is on winning the so-called ‘bronze final’ against Argentina on Friday night.
Their mission is to come full circle; by ending the tournament as they started it, by taming the Pumas, to finish in third place.
That would certainly represent a higher-than-expected outcome. England are not truly the third-best side in the world — given the pedigree of World Cup finalists New Zealand and South Africa, along with France and Ireland — but they are rising again. There is now tangible proof of progress.
What they delivered on Saturday night was a limited strategy but a near-perfect one. It wasn’t pretty, but in poor conditions it was savvy and effective. To be denied at the death was so, so cruel.
England’s campaign has featured five wins and a defeat by one point. There’s no disgrace in that, although the path was relatively gentle.
Given how abject they looked in August, it was no mean feat. Collective spirit and most staples were good, until the dramatic scrum collapse which left them unable to resist a Bok fightback.
In summary, it went like this. They were heroic to win well with 14 against Argentina in the opener. Next came a routine dismissal of Japan (who are not the side they were in 2019), followed by a hollow romp against Chile’s part-timers.
Then there was a scare before the escape to victory against Samoa and a controlled, forceful effort to repel Fiji’s quarter-final fightback in Marseille. Then this; easily the best performance, but to no avail.
Borthwick won’t address the bigger picture until the quest for bronze is complete, but there are big decisions ahead. Some veterans are retiring — Courtney Lawes and Jonny May have already confirmed as much — and others may have to be moved on.
There are fresh doubts about the outlook for Billy Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler after this narrow defeat.
Steve Borthwick will take many positives from the World Cup, it was a sharp learning curve
England captain Owen Farrell once again proved his excellent leadership and ability on field
The head coach has already hinted that many experienced men will continue and he won’t oversee a youth revolution for the sake of it. It is hard to imagine captain Owen Farrell standing down at 32 — not when his friend Johnny Sexton led Ireland into this World Cup at the age of 38.
George Ford is 30, but still has plenty of time left. Marcus Smith may find that his Test prospects lie more at full back than 10.
England’s scrum has to become a national priority. Frankly, it is a national emergency. Joe Marler and Dan Cole were superb in keeping South Africa’s pack at bay, but their set-piece prowess is not matched by many within the English game.
There must be a concerted mission to bring through formidable figures like Nche — if any exist in the country.
That critical issue aside, Borthwick and his assistants have shown there are some solid foundations. Now to build a grand edifice, with more time and space to do so. The attacking repertoire will need to expand, but that will be a painstaking process.
Ben Earl was England’s breakthrough payer of the campaign, a strong performance by the No 8
Ben Earl has brought dynamism to the back row, but will Zach Mercer also earn another shot? And there will be several back-line gaps to fill as May is retiring, Ben Youngs and Danny Care may not be seen again, and there will be doubts about even the short-term outlook for Manu Tuilagi — who is understood to have played this semi-final with a broken hand.
There are alarming gaps in the English production line right now, but there has been evidence of potential within this squad to provide encouragement.
‘The mix of youngsters and older guys is great,’ said Elliot Daly.
‘The young guys have really stood up in this tournament; lads like Freddie (Steward) and Mitch (Alex Mitchell), who’ve not got a lot of World Cup experience but they’ve come in and dominated games. I’m very excited for the next four years.’