In 2019 England lost the World Cup final to South Africa when their scrum was dismantled, with replacement prop Dan Cole widely criticised after being thrown into the mix in the third minute after Kyle Sinckler was knocked out.
Four years on England fans woke up wondering what might have been had Cole not been replaced by Sinckler, who immediately gave away two penalties after coming on as the Springbok scrum suddenly achieved total domination and propelled them to their 16-15 comeback semi-final victory.
Coach Steve Borthwick had tweaked his front row for the match, hoping that Sinckler and Ellis Genge would bring energy from the bench, but the move backfired badly.
Veterans Cole and Joe Marler had played their part in giving England scrum parity but that flipped after they were replaced after 56 and 53 minutes as the Springboks’ fresh props earned four scrum penalties that turned the game.
However, England could and should have been out of sight by then. Over the match they enjoyed 73% possession and it seemed almost the entire second half was played in the South African half.
England’s only points though were from Owen Farrell’s 53rd-minute drop goal and they did not seem to have a plan on how to garner more. There were no further drop goal attempts and no attempt to move the ball wide to engineer a try in the slippery conditions.
Instead, it seemed as if they were passively banking on pressuring the Springboks into conceding another penalty or two, which almost certainly would have been enough to win the game, but the defending champions’ discipline held firm under immense pressure and kept them in the game.
The one occasion England did get into a great lineout position to set up a try-threatening maul, Jamie George was penalised for a not-straight throw. George played the full 80 minutes, as he did in the quarter-final and the last pool game against Samoa.
South Africa barely launched an attack in the second half but when they did get in range via a lineout following a scrum penalty, RG Snyman powered over the line.
“England did not get near to scoring a try and that is what they have got to look at,” said Clive Woodward, who was the coach the last time England got over the line against South Africa in a World Cup match in 2003. “Scoring tries is the next level England have to take their game to.”
Will Greenwood, the man who scored that try in a pool game during their run to eventually winning the trophy, described Saturday’s game as “England’s best performance for two to three years, especially given the weather conditions and the pressure of it being a semi-final.
“They had complete control of the game. I could not see them losing, especially with the field position they had at times in the second half,” he said.
“But what you forget is the ability of a scrum to give you a penalty, which gives you a line-out, and South Africa’s lineout went from completely dysfunctional in the first half to now having RG Snyman on the park.”