Rugby: Can England's World Cup heroics bring back fans and pave way for Six Nations glory?

England's Ollie Chessum was gutted by the semi-final result but could it provide a platform for future success? Credit: PA

Despite doing their best to immerse themselves in preparations for the bronze medal match against Argentina on Friday, it is very likely that England’s players’ heads are still filled with repeated, slo-mo images of Handre Pollard’s last gasp strike at the Stade de France.

A penalty in the embers of an epic encounter on Saturday that meant South Africa denied England what they arguably deserved, a place in the final.

The picture will be especially difficult to erase for those who won’t grace this stage again, but all of them will wonder ‘what might have been’ for a long time to come, and inevitably ask themselves ‘could I have done any better?’

Head coach Steve Borthwick will not be distracted in the same way. Yes, he’ll be hurting, and he’ll too be wondering whether he might have done anything differently, but he will already be thinking about what is next.

And ‘what next’ is not just Argentina at the end of this week - Borthwick is always many months ahead.

His planning for Friday will be meticulous because that’s who he is, but he’ll also be focusing on the Six Nations tournament next year, who he’ll pick in his squad, who the next generation of players are, and how England will develop from here.

Borthwick deserves great credit for masterminding a strategy against South Africa that will have had England fans on the edge of their seats. The players executed the plan to near perfection, but it was Borthwick’s plan.

He will have won over many doubters in France, whose numbers were growing, after an underwhelming build-up to rugby’s showpiece. He devised the perfect tactics to unsettle the tournament favourites and was one kick and a few minutes away from leading his men to a crack at rugby’s ultimate prize, as the only unbeaten team in the tournament.

Two months or so earlier some critics were predicting England could struggle to get out of their group, instead they came up with their best performance in four years and were agonisingly close to pulling off one of the great upsets.

England's Owen Farrell after South Africa won the Rugby World Cup semi-final. Credit: PA

If ever failure can be judged as success, then this was it.

It is hard to overestimate the progress Borthwick has made, given the hand he was originally dealt. The England head coach’s job was always one he coveted, but it was a role he didn’t anticipate even being considered for until after this tournament - at the earliest.

Subsequently he’s had nine months in charge and his coaching team has only been in place for five of those.

The reality of what he inherited is not well documented either. Here is not the place to go into the many unheard details of the carnage Eddie Jones left in his wake, but the truth is Borthwick walked into a dysfunctional and fearful environment.

In a relatively short space of time, he’s tried to repair that damage, stop the decline, and lead England towards superpower status again. And he has made a pretty good fist of it.

Yes, the draw was kind to England in France, but the nail-biting, one point loss to number one ranked South Africa was proof that Borthwick has both the management expertise and tactical skills to turn this misfiring squad around.

He has certainly earnt the right to build on the project he started, because there must have been moments when even Borthwick wondered whether he’d still be in a job if the knock-out stages proved beyond him and England.

But what does that project look like?

Ahead of the World Cup, ITV News was granted special behind-the-scenes access with England coach Steve Borthwick - watch here:

Of course, the main objective is performance related but there is also a job to do with England’s relationship with its fans; the perception of a siege mentality occasionally evident in France should now end.

In reality, the two are linked and every small margin needs exploiting.

Players who are genuinely nervous about getting criticised by fans or the media for any mistake they make, are far more likely to retreat into their comfort zone while wearing an England shirt.

Fear of failure is not an ingredient you’d usually recommend when concocting a top-level performance. Also, a bouncing, noisy and supportive Twickenham can only be a good thing.

Saturday’s match was watched by a whopping 8.7 million viewers on ITV, among them potentially the next generation of supporters who are there for the taking, if England and the RFU can use this campaign as a platform.

The squad should embrace the infusion of pride their near miss in France has given supporters.

South Africa's Faf De Klerk applauding the crowd after swapping shirts with England's Danny Care. Credit: PA

Borthwick’s initial challenge though is to identify who will form the backbone of his team moving forward, and which of the older players have had their last dance. He has already indicated he likes a blend of experience and young talent, so don’t expect him to turn things completely upside down.

He will also have to identify exactly what style he wants to adopt. While the semi-final gameplan was spot on, those tactics were suitable for that match in those conditions and Borthwick will likely now consider how to develop England’s versatility.

Their recent try count, especially against the top teams is not where it needs to be if they’re going to reach rugby’s summit again.

For all Owen Farrell and George Ford’s expertise off the tee and their resurrection of the deadly drop-goal weapon, Borthwick has to devise a plan to get his players crossing that line, ball in hand, more often.

Not only does the scoreboard move more quickly that way, but England fans love nothing more. Everybody wins.

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