A week after delivering quite possibly the greatest win in its rugby history over the All Blacks in the semifinals, England barely laid a glove on the Springboks in being outplayed, outmuscled and overwhelmed in a 32-12 loss on Saturday.
"You can have the most investigative debrief of your game and you still don't know what was wrong," England coach Eddie Jones said. "It just happens sometimes. It's not a good day for it to happen." England's players looked so calm and composed as they walked out to the field for kickoff. Not far away, the Boks were pumped, their captain Siya Kolisi giving bear-hugs to anyone near him and then shaking with emotion as he roared out South Africa's national anthem.
There was already an ostensible contrast in intensity between the teams and things soon started going wrong for England during the match. Inside three minutes, Kyle Sinckler, England's mobile prop, was knocked unconscious as he attempted to tackle South Africa winger Makazole Mapimpi. Off he went, clearly concussed, in a damaging early blow.
From the resulting scrum, England's eight was driven back. Scrumhalf Ben Youngs ignored two inside runners and threw a pass way over the head of winger Anthony Watson. Courtney Lawes failed to take an England lineout under pressure. Mako Vunipola conceded another penalty at the scrum.
On it went. It was a wonder how England went into halftime only 12-6 behind. "We came in thinking we'd not really fired too much of a shot," England captain Owen Farrell said. They didn't in the second half, either.
George Ford overkicked an up-and-under by some distance one minute in. Dan Cole, the early replacement for Sinckler, conceded another penalty at the scrum, which by now was badly malfunctioning for the English. They just could not get a foothold.
The final stats told the story. England gained just 173 meters the whole match, less than half of South Africa's total. Praised for their discipline throughout the tournament, England conceded 10 penalties.
Jones, for the second time after Australia lost to England in 2003, failed to get his team over the line in a World Cup final. "We're the second best team in the world," he said. "We didn't meet our goal — our goal was to be the best team in the world, and we're the second best team in the world. So that's how we should be remembered.
"I think the players prepared tremendously well for this World Cup and played with a lot of pride, passion and we got caught short today. Why we came up short today I'm not sure and sometimes you never know."
England's players gathered in a group in one half of the field and looked on as the Springbok players lifted the Webb Ellis Cup to the backdrop of fireworks and danced on the podium. Farrell stood silently, his hands on his hips. Maro Itoje received his runner-up medal but didn't put it around his neck.
The World Cup winners of 2003 — Jonny Wilkinson, Martin Johnson and Co. — remain the standard-bearers in English rugby. The class of 2019 joins the 2007 team in falling short, both times to South Africa.
But there has been undeniable progress under Jones, who took over an England squad that exited the 2015 World Cup at the pool stage in embarrassing, unprecedented fashion, as tournament host no less. There was the 18-game winning run at the start of the Jones era, which included a 3-0 series win in Australia. Two straight Six Nations titles, one of which was a Grand Slam. That win over the All Blacks in the World Cup semifinals, which will go down in rugby lore and lifted England to the top of the world rankings for the first time in 15 years.
England's starting XV for the final had an average age of 27 years, 60 days, making it the youngest team to start a Rugby World Cup title match in the professional era. As hard as it would have been on Saturday, after being demolished in every department by the Springboks, there are rays of hope.
"The only thing I'm worried about now," Jones said, "is having a few beers. And after we have a few beers today, we'll probably have a few more beers tomorrow. And then probably Monday. And then maybe we have to pull up stumps."
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80