England legend casts doubt on ‘inexperienced’ coaches and weighs in on Steve Borthwick’s position

Alex Spink
England head coach Steve Borthwick alongside skills coach Kevin Sinfield during the 2024 Six Nations.

England head coach Steve Borthwick alongside skills coach Kevin Sinfield during the 2024 Six Nations.

The fixture which ended his England career has Neil Back fearing the worst once more – and delivering a frank appraisal of Steve Borthwick’s team.

20 years ago this week the Rugby World Cup winner reacted to a home loss to Ireland by hanging up his white jersey.

The memory remains vivid and Back admits to worrying another haunting reversal is on the cards.

“Disastrous position”

“Do I fear for England this week? I do yeah,” said the Leicester legend.

“We’re facing a team that beats everyone in the world consistently. Play this game 10 times and we might win one.

“We’ve got to hope this is that one but we could be in the disastrous position of going four Six Nations tournaments losing more games than we win.”

The last time England played a top-five ranked team at Twickenham they suffered a record home defeat – France scoring seven tries in a 53-10 rout.

Ireland are two places above France in the world order and England are again reeling from being well beaten, a loss to Scotland Back insists is no laughing matter.

“I used to walk into a room and say: ‘Do we have any English in here? Welsh? Irish?’ Fans from those three countries would cheer,” he said.

“I’d then say, ‘Any Scots?’ There’d be just a couple and I’d joke, ‘It’s just like a Lions squad!’ I can’t say that now. How many more would there be from Scotland than England?

“After the Murrayfield game I joked on social media that I could remember when we used to let Scotland win once every 10 years just to keep them in the fight.

“We’ve now won one out of seven against Scotland – I never thought I’d see that.”

Such a slump was unthinkable when England lined up against Ireland in March 2004, world champions, ranked one in the world.

They led the table with consecutive away wins and faced opponents well beaten by France and without a victory at Twickenham in a decade.

What followed was a Red Rose horror show. Three months after ruling the world in Australia they lost 11 of their 19 line-outs and with them the match.

England’s decline

From there things unravelled fast. Three weeks later they were beaten in Paris and by September coach Clive Woodward was gone. England would not win another title for seven years.

The unease Back feels today takes him right back to that afternoon he was left on the bench as England surrendered their four-year unbeaten home record to an Irish side the bookies had down as 25-point underdogs.

He remembers it as the “most frustrating” day of his rugby career, watching a nation winless at Twickenham in a decade end England’s record 22-win home streak.

“For 80 minutes I was on the sidelines armed with a decade’s worth of experience – and not called upon to help,” he wrote in his Daily Mirror column.

“I won’t pretend it didn’t hurt that I was seen as offering nothing that would have improved the situation England were in. So when the final whistle went and I was still in my tracksuit I thought to myself: ‘Enough is enough.”

Back’s pain was Ireland’s gain, their 19-13 triumph a springboard to three Triple Crowns in four years and onto a hat-trick of Grand Slams which has every chance of becoming four this month.

“We went into that game having won 24 out of 25,” added Back. “20 years on Ireland are that team.”

So to the former flanker’s assessment of his ex-team and whether it’s time to wield the axe in the coaching box.

Borthwick and his coaching team

Back scans Borthwick’s record of eight defeats from 19 games, only one win over higher-ranked opposition (Argentina), and says: “We are a million miles away from where England were 20-odd years ago.

“Felix Jones [new defence coach] strengthens Borthwick’s coaching team, but introducing a new defensive system takes time and there’s always going to be teething issues.

“Jones won two World Cups with South Africa and was responsible for one of the best defences in the world. But the Springboks already had an attack system in place.

“Their defence system was to create broken field opportunities, break down the opposition’s possession and then attack with the structure they’d got in place.

“England are trying to build both simultaneously and we are paying the price for it. The amount of penalties we’ve given away, the amount of balls being dropped, the amount of tries we’re leaking, is not how you win Test matches.

“I don’t want to knock anyone,” adds Back, who divides his time between consultancy roles for TPS Visual Communications and Bullerwell and Co Ltd.

“But some of the other coaches have very little experience of coaching at this level. That I think is showing.

“The attack and the defence is not cohesive.

“For all that, I believe it would be wrong for England to make the decision to bring in a new head coach then a year later look elsewhere. Borthwick should be given time.”

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