Chateau de Vincennes, the closest Metro stop to England’s training base on the eastern edge of the French capital, is the end of the line. Given that England play South Africa, a team most believe to be in a different league from Steve Borthwick’s side, in the World Cup semi-final at the Stade de France on Saturday, some might say that seems apt.
The Metro stop takes its name from a grand edifice that has known better days, once housed the Marquis de Sade as a prisoner, has been desecrated by vandals, surpassed for elegance and accomplishment by new buildings and which, some visitors say, feels barren and desolate. Given its proximity to the England camp, some might say that also seems apt.
A side that some have described as the worst team ever to play in a Rugby World Cup semi-final go into their clash against the world champions knowing that the deluge of biblical proportions forecast for the area represents their best chance of somehow upsetting the odds and reaching the final.
Some might say it is their only chance. If you think this harsh, don’t worry. None of it will come as a surprise nor indeed an affront to Borthwick and his England team, who have already wrapped themselves in a cocoon of resentment and bitterness at the criticism they have received in the past eight months for being a decidedly mediocre side. They welcome slights and hold them close to their hearts.
Steve Borthwick’s England have been described by some as to worst side to reach a Rugby World Cup semi-final, but his team embrace the slights
England have wrapped themselves in a cocoon against the criticism of the last eight months
Some might feel that England training at a ground near the end of the metro line is apt
They have already used them to their advantage to create a siege mentality and in many ways, they have already had the last laugh over their critics: the England side who finished fourth in this year’s Six Nations Championship is the only unbeaten team left in this World Cup. And the only Northern Hemisphere nation, too.
Even on Friday afternoon, when it was put to England attack coach Richard Wigglesworth that England have been written off by most of the rugby world ahead of their clash with Siya Kolisi, Cheslin Kolbe and the rest of the team who outclassed them in the 2019 World Cup final, Wigglesworth seized on it.
‘As for being written off,’ Wigglesworth said, ‘that’s been for a fair while now.
‘I don’t think anybody should ever apologise for who they are and having their identity. Sometimes it feels like people want that apology and for everyone to play the same way.
‘The game of rugby is brilliant because of all these different styles and they all work if you get it right on the day. We need our style to work for us.’
England have already characterised themselves as Public Enemy No 1 during this tournament, too. The less dramatic reality is that they have received entirely dispassionate criticism for being rather an ordinary rugby team.
Now, though, courtesy of the tournament’s lop-sided draw, England are about to meet the first top-rank team they have faced so far, having successfully negotiated the might of Argentina, Japan, Chile, Samoa and Fiji. It is fair to say that not many people give them a prayer.
They are training on the edge of the Bois de Vincennes, at France’s equivalent of Bisham Abbey, the Institut National du Sport, de l’Expertise et de la Performance. This is an aside, but for all their expertise and performance, they have not yet mastered the skill of arriving at press conferences for the world’s media remotely on time.
They were 90 minutes late on Thursday. Half an hour late on Friday. Outside the world of television, newspapers and online, no one cares, obviously, but it hardly speaks of a disciplined, efficient mindset. Or maybe they want to irritate as many people as they can.
‘Everyone hates us, we don’t care’ has become the mantra of an unloved team and they are doing everything they can to get into character.
Most neutrals want South Africa to win, not just because they are a better team.
Assistant coach Richard Wigglesworth says rugby is brilliant because of its diversity of styles
Most neutrals want South Africa to win against an unloved England but the pressure is on them
England stunned the All Blacks in the semi-finals in 2019 with a 19-7 victory in Japan
If that does not happen, there will be a lot of egg on a lot of faces among the rugby commentariat and the prospect of that, along with the rain and their own bloody-mindedness, will be England’s best weapons. The desire to prove critics wrong burns in every sportsman. And it burns brightly in this England team.
What a story it would be if they do it. It would be one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history. But then again, England did manage a similar trick four years ago when they reached the high-water mark of Eddie Jones’ reign with a magnificent semi-final victory over the All Blacks in Japan.
Nothing about the demeanour of the world champions offers much hope for England. There is no hint of complacency. They resonate determination and a driven intensity that suggests England will be meeting them at their best.
Practising with wet balls, as England did on Friday morning, may not be enough to derail the South Africa machine.
At their own press conference on Thursday, the South Africans took great care not to add any fuel to the pyre of England’s resentments. They gave them due respect. They talked about how hard they played. They talked about their ‘unique’ kicking game, which was a diplomatic way of saying their style is not particularly easy on the eye.
None of that matters to England. They are in their zone now. They have circled the wagons. They have manned the barricades. Call it what you want but however modest their opposition has been, it has worked for them so far. They have defeated everything that has been put in front of them and now they believe they can defeat South Africa, too.
‘It’s a World Cup semi-final,’ England flanker Tom Curry said. ‘If that’s not enough to get you up for a game then I don’t know what will. Everyone is different in how they prepare for it and, ultimately, we have to get on to the same page and get that buzz and feeling and everyone will go about that differently.
‘We’ve got over 24 hours now to do that. Everyone has their different plans but for me there’s no place you’d rather be than in a semi-final against South Africa. We know it will be a physical challenge but that’s fine. You look at their team and it’s exciting.’
Tom Curry said embraces the physical challenge and said: ‘There’s no place you’d rather be than in a semi-final against South Africa’
Owen Farrell, for all the misanthrophy he exudes, is one of the greats of the English game
England have been training with wet balls as the forecast for Saturday evening promises rain
There are plenty of born winners in this England side, too, plenty of men it is easy to admire. Kevin Sinfield, England’s defence coach, would come at the top of that list. Maro Itoje would be near the head of it, too. And for all the misanthropy he exudes, England’s skipper Owen Farrell is one of the greats of the English game.
All these men are titans, who are doing everything they can to exhume England from the hole that Jones buried them in before he departed.
By dint of reaching the semi-finals despite expectations, they have made significant progress towards that goal.
Sometimes, out of desolation, a kind of beauty grows but at this stage of the rebuilding of England’s edifice, the suspicion remains that South Africa will be too high a bar for this team to clear.