England to battle years of hurt from South Africa in bid to reach World Cup final

They’re the big underdogs heading into the game in Paris, but England’s rugby players have become used to being written off lately.

Their form heading into the tournament in France was woeful, and yet they’re the only unbeaten side left in the semi-finals.

Now they face a South Africa team that’s proved to be their nemesis at several other world cups.

Happy England fans during the group game against Japan

The prospect of trying to beat South Africa and set up another shot at glory will give England fans with long – and short – memories, nightmares.

The Springboks have proved England’s nemesis in two world cup finals – in 2007 and 2019 – as well as one quarter-final and a group game.

England head coach Steve Borthwick before the quarter-final against Fiji

England’s only success against them in the biggest tournament in the sport came in a 2003 pool match, when Sir Clive Woodward’s eventual winners triumphed 25-6 in Perth.

But it’s the 2019 game that many will focus on this weekend, not least because a total of 28 players across the two squads are survivors of that match in Yokohama, won 32-12 by the Africans.

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In that game, a far stronger, more talented and in-form England than the current group, were outmuscled by the Springboks, whose forward dominance caused mayhem at the scrum and lineout.

Four years on, South Africa’s strength is again in the pack and, this year, their tactical use of their bench – dubbed the “Bomb Squad”.

England’s Jonny Wilkinson (C) downcast after being beaten by South Africa in the 2007 Rugby World Cup final

But captain Owen Farrell, asked what the team took from the Yokohama defeat, maintained that they weren’t looking back.

It was, he said, “a long time ago”.

We’ve played each other a good few times since and we’re looking at what we can do going into Saturday,” he said,

“This feels like a new challenge… a new opportunity. In four years, a lot happens in rugby, a lot happens in a week here. We feel like we’ve obviously changed as a team. I imagine South Africa feel like they’ve changed over four years as well.”

England coach Steve Borthwick is a divisive figure for some, fostering a classic sporting siege mentality while in France, defying critics of his team’s sometimes uninspiring style.

Borthwick said he’d heard “tens of thousands of people are coming across [from England]” for the game and talked of a “special feeling” in the French capital ahead of the match.

Sticking to his philosophy of “concentrating purely on us”, he said the challenge for his side was “how do we develop and how do we progress as a team?”

He said he hoped his team would “put in a performance all their supporters are proud of.”

Another South Africa defeat for England – in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final

That could be a tall order as, while he praised their contribution to England’s success so far, others aren’t so sure they have been impressed by his work since replacing Eddie Jones in December.

Against Argentina, in their opening match of the tournament, there was raucous support for their 14-man victory, but there were also 6,000 empty seats for their quarter-final win over Fiji.

For England’s last match before heading to France, a first-ever defeat to the Islanders, Twickenham’s top tier was kept shut due to sluggish ticket sales.

Manu Tuilagi scores England’s opening try against Fiji. Pic: AP

Borthwick identified reconnecting his side with supporters, who had grown tired of Eddie Jones’s approach, as one of his first major tasks when appointed.

Whatever the truth of the matter, one thing’s for certain – anyone wearing red and white will be thrilled if his team gains revenge for years of hurt and emerges victorious at the Stade de France.