There has been plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth over England’s unadventurous style of play at the Rugby World Cup, but Anthony Watson believes they can go all the way.
Steve Borthwick’s men are closing in on a quarter-final spot and are atop of Pool D after wins over Argentina and Japan.
But Sunday’s win over the lowly-ranked Brave Blossoms saw Red Rose supporters boo their own team for what they perceived as boring, dull and one-dimensional tactics.
England now face Chile, the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, on Saturday with captain Owen Farrell available again after suspension in a major boost.
The masterclass against Argentina
Red Rose winger Watson, whose World Cup hopes were dashed by a calf injury, believes England are building into the tournament and that Kevin Sinfield’s influence as defence coach is crucial.
Watson told Planet Rugby: “The opening game against Argentina was ridiculously good; a defensive masterclass, and England have conceded one try in two games now.
“As a coach, Kev understands defence inside out, but what I appreciate about him most is his ability to connect with players.
“He understands the emotions that come with being an elite performer.
“All the stuff that people don’t see – injuries, not getting selected – Kev gets all that because he’s been there and done it with Leeds Rhinos.
“And as a defence coach, not only does he understand the game so well, but he has this ability to get the boys fired up emotionally.
“That’s special – to be able to give off that kind of energy to players and make them want to go to war for you is a very special trait.
“But Kev has got that, and he’s the coach that I would ride out for. He’s a special man.”
3⃣ of the best! #RWC2023
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) September 9, 2023
England can win the World Cup
Former France star Olivier Magne labelled England’s tactics against Japan as “repulsive” and “ugly”.
Yet England prop Joe Marler this week rounded on his team’s critics by pointing to the 2003 World Cup-winning team, who he claimed also “won ugly” en-route to glory in Australia 20 years ago.
And Watson declared: “Can this England side win the World Cup? Yes, I believe they’re capable of going all the way.
“They have the players and coaching staff to do it, and I’ve seen that from having been inside the camp.
“All the players will believe it too, so it’s just about building in every game and not even thinking about the quarter-finals just yet.
“Steve is the best in the world at not letting anyone get ahead of themselves after two wins.
“He doesn’t rest on his laurels and will be straight onto the Chile game now.
“He won’t be looking ahead to who we might be playing in the quarter-final.
“He will be very much focused on the here and now, and that rubs off on the players – it doesn’t allow you to get complacent but to focus on doing your job.”
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) September 18, 2023
Ford or Farrell
Borthwick has a major dilemma as he ponders whether to recall Farrell to the starting line-up at fly-half – at the expense of George Ford – or inside centre against Chile.
Wideman Watson, who featured in England’s past two World Cup campaigns, added: “Having played with George for many years, I’ve always known how talented he is.
“Sometimes people want to write him off, but those who know George appreciate he’s a very special player.
“I’d put him in the world’s top 10 fly-halves; he’s that good.
“Does Owen come straight back in at No 10 to replace George, or does Steve use George at 12?
“Significantly, Ford and Farrell have shown many times that they can play together.
“One of England’s most successful periods over the past decade has been with George at 10 and Owen at 12.
“They are both world-class fly-halves, but don’t overlook Marcus Smith either because he’s another generational talent.
“I don’t envy Steve having to pick the England team this week – especially with who plays at 10 – because it will be a horrendously difficult decision.”
🗣️ "It’s going to be a big call just to disrupt that.” #RWC2023
🏴 Matt Dawson reckons England could be better off without Owen Farrell.https://t.co/l4dFn0rjCl
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) September 17, 2023
Duty to care
Watson was speaking at a grassroots training session in Crewe to promote ‘Duty to Care’, a movement launched by UK Coaching to support coaches in the education and provision of all aspects of care in rugby.
Reducing concussions is a big part of that, and Watson added: “Tackling has definitely become harder for players.
“But lowering tackle height is absolutely paramount because we want to reduce the number of concussions in the game due to the associated health risks – and it’s not impossible.
“There are incidents which are very difficult to prevent, and Tom Curry’s red card against Argentina was probably one of those.
“But the work goes in behind the scenes to be low, and it will continue to be that way because we know how important it is. It’s not impossible.
“UK Coaching’s’ Duty of Care programme is about trying to raise as much awareness and support for coaches and how they can support players, whether it’s through mental health and wellbeing, but most importantly for me is concussion and concussion in kids.
“No one wants to see a child gets concussed, and the tackle rules are there to protect that and to try and mitigate that.
“But more importantly, if there are any signs of symptoms, coaches need to be as diligent as possible to recognise that and pulling kids from training.
“And it’s not necessarily just kids – even further up the grassroots game – pulling people who have any signs of concussion symptoms.
“Concussion on concussion can be dangerous, and we want to try and mitigate that as much as possible, so anything we can do to help, we are trying to do.”
Anthony Watson is supporting the Duty to Care campaign, a movement launched by UK Coaching to galvanise the coaching workforce. To find out more, visit https://www.ukcoaching.org/duty-to-care, and for resources on concussion, go to Concussion – UK Coaching.