FOR all the talk of their dismantled scrum, the sight of Owen Farrell lofting out a pass to no one in particular behind his own goalline was perhaps the most obvious hint that England would not lift the Webb Ellis Cup in Japan.
If that was not enough, mind, there was Ben Youngs – under considerably less pressure – lofting his own pass directly into touch.
Aside from all this lofting, there was a bit of dribbling, too, such as when Billy Vunipola, powering away from the base of a scrum as he so often does, aimed a feeble pass to Farrell’s bootlaces resulting in the prone England captain being penalised in front of his own posts.
It was not limited to errant passes; George Ford slicked a kick directly into touch from outside his 22.
All of this nonsense inside the opening 26 minutes.
But it was nonsense because all of these players – all world-class, elite rugby internationals – could ordinarily execute each of these jobs with such ease and like a ticking metronome given the relentless regularity of it all.
Conditioned, coached, programmed. It’s second nature.
But this was a World Cup final so perhaps it was the obvious nerves that brought on all of this state of confusion?
That, however, doesn’t sit right either; England were utterly nerveless the week before in eviscerating the mighty All Blacks.
Unfortunately, as painful as it is for them to concede, and put in blatantly simple terms, Eddie Jones’s side had ‘one of those nights’ that sometimes occurs and – depending on your positioning in the situation – makes sport either wonderfully brilliant or agonisingly painful. Let’s not forget, as much as sports science is prevalent, sport simply isn’t scientific.
There are no clear-cut answers to why England failed to perform on Saturday and subsequently perished at the hands of a superb South African side who, in stark contrast, truly delivered.
That is why today, tomorrow and for days, weeks, months and probably even years ahead this England side will be left wondering: why?
And, more pertinently, why did that have to happen THEN on Saturday November 2 2019, a date that had been etched in their minds for four long years?
Granted, much of England’s issues can be boiled back to Kyle Sinckler’s exit after that second minute injury.
‘Luckless’ does not begin to do the tighthead’s horrid situation justice; the biggest game of his life over and done with in just 173 seconds following an accidental collision.
The British Lions prop has been excellent in this World Cup and for some time before.
He was always going to be key in England’s bid to nulify the Springboks at scrum-time so it was understandable why his forced departure due to concussion would cause issues.
Perhaps no one could have envisaged how many issues, mind, as they went onto concede six scrum penalties, a sort of statistic that would leave any side starved and under duress.
It left them rattled but, given those alarming inaccuracies of his afforementioned team-mates with ball in hand, you wonder whether England would have had enough composure to get the job done even if Sinckler had not needed to be replaced by Dan Cole so early on.
South Africa were, after all, immense in all facets and produced a display worthy of being crowned world champions.
It is hard to pick out one solitary moment in this game that defined that.
Perhaps most impressive, though, was the period on their own line around the 33rd minute when they repelled wave after wave of English attacks, holding out Jones’s side for fully 25 phases. It broke England rather than the other way around, Farrell coming away only with a penalty to leave his side level at 6-6 but possibly knowing these sides weren’t level at all; the captain had seen his men throw their best at the ‘Boks and fail to breach them.
They would not get over their line at all in the entire 80 minutes.
Much like Ireland did against the All Blacks at the quarter-final stage, England saved their worst performance for the time when it mattered most.
Some fans will have seen it coming; the knockout victories against Australia and New Zealand were so good, could they ever really sustain let alone better those levels of performance for a third week running?
The answer was an emphatic ‘no’ and now all those plans are torn up and started over ready for France 2023.
Many of this side will be gone by then and new players will emerge but there is nothing to suggest a large crop of this squad can not go on to do it all again in four years’ time.
Lessons will be learned although it is hard to see what Jones might have done differently if he had his time again.
The Farrell/Ford debate will go on and on and perhaps there needs to be some clarity in that 10/12 position once and for all.
But, essentially, his squad could not have been prepared any better.
And, generally speaking, the old mantra that ‘preparation is key to performance’ still rings true.
Nevertheless, sometimes all the prepartion in the world cannot prevent a wayward pass or unfortunate head injury.
Sport, bless it, has a nasty habit of reminding people of that.