One day last week, Sir Clive Woodward sat in a Tokyo hotel and talked about the thought that sometimes haunts him. In his quieter moments, he said, he thinks about what his life might have become, how his future might have been damaged irreparably if England had lost the World Cup final in 2003.
‘What would have happened if we had lost that game?' England's coach that day, asked. ‘I think we'd all have turned out pretty nasty people. I wouldn't have wanted to be responsible for how I turned out. It was the chance of a lifetime. It would have been horrible.’
In Japan’s November night, Eddie Jones and his England team stared into that void after being crushed 32-12 by South Africa. Outplayed and outthought, overwhelmed by the physical might of their opponents, they stared into a darkness of knowing that they had thrown away an opportunity that may never come again.
England were outplayed, outthought and overwhelmed by South Africa in World Cup final
England's crushing defeat saw them blow big chance to join the nation's sporting greats
In the days that follow, England boss Eddie Jones will reflect on where it all went so wrong
They gazed inside themselves and knew that when their moment came, they had turned away from it. They had shrunk from the challenge, not risen to it. ‘There is,’ Jones told everyone two weeks ago, ‘always a better samurai round the corner.’ It turns out he was right.
England had frozen. They had known what was coming and when it hit them with the force of a freight train, they could not deal with it. The conquerors of New Zealand, the men who produced perhaps the greatest of all England World Cup performances in the semi-final, simply could not do it when it mattered most.
And so we will not mention this group alongside the Boys of 66. And we will not mention them alongside the so-called Dad’s Army who won the World Cup in Australia in 2003. And we will not mention them alongside the Eoin Morgan team who held their nerve and won the Cricket World Cup less than four months ago.
England gave away numerous scrum penalties and Handre Pollard took full advantage
Owen Farrell scored four penalties but couldn't replicate Jonny Wilkinson's 2003 heroics
England couldn't handle South Africa's superior power and lacked discipline throughout
By the time Cheslin Kobe raced through to seal victory, England resembled a rabble
And so we will not talk about Owen Farrell in the same breath as Jonny Wilkinson. And we will not talk about Maro Itoje in the same breath as Martin Johnson. And we will not include Farrell in the pantheon of great England captains who have won a World Cup. Not yet, anyway.
That list still remains at Bobby Moore, Johnson and Morgan. England’s rugby players were supposed to complete an annus mirabilis for English sport here in Yokohama but when the chance came, they blew it.
As brilliant as they were against the All Blacks, so they were embarrassingly poor against South Africa. They could not cope with the power of the Springbok pack, they gave away penalty after scrum penalty, their discipline was poor, their handling was ragged, their passing was awry. By the end of this humbling defeat, they