State of the Nation: Change of coach fails to have desired effect for England leaving Steve Borthwick with much to ponder

James While

With the dust settling on the 2023 Six Nations, we delve into the state of affairs of each of the six teams. Next up, England.

Changing coaches nine matches out from a Rugby World Cup and on the eve of a Six Nations campaign was always going to hamper England’s progression and, predictably, wins against strugglers Italy and Wales was all they had to show for their efforts as they slipped from third to fourth in comparison to 2022.

An early loss to the outstanding Scotland, an absolute thumping by France and a promising showing curtailed by an erroneous red card against Ireland demonstrated clearly the magnitude of the task facing Steve Borthwick, and at the time of writing, it’s pretty hard to identify precisely where England are or the style of rugby they’re trying to play.

Midfield muddles

Given that Borthwick was always going to try various combinations in this series, nobody quite expected to see the muddled midfield selections that dominated the headlines. Changes at number 10 rivalled those of a Tory government as Borthwick tried both Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell, and against Scotland, both of them without any real ringing endorsement of success.

Outside that pair, England employed four centres – Farrell, Ollie Lawrence, Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi – without ever reaching anything of a conclusion other than Lawrence has immense promise and that Tuilagi is still the best Test 12 England have. Such changes certainly don’t help bed in new defensive systems, let alone creative attacking thinking.

With Farrell at 10, England fashioned something of a game plan, one based upon robust aerial contestables, committed chasing and physicality, but what they didn’t do was create line breaks or phase tries. In fact, against Ireland, they managed just one in 80 minutes. With the free-running Smith at fly-half, England lost against both Scotland and France, the latter an absolute humiliation against the 2023 Rugby World Cup favourites and really failed to create much at all.

To judge the combinations on the evidence means that you’d think a Farrell-led attack has the better chance in the coming months, but the real question is which line up has the greatest potential for performance growth, and the answer to that isn’t so clear-cut, with many good judges believing Smith has a much higher ability ceiling than Farrell.

Whichever pivot you pick, the key is to select players alongside them that they’re used to at club level. Farrell got that – a playmaker on his shoulder – and one of the results was Max Malins’ Saracens training ground break to set up Anthony Watson versus Wales. For Smith, it cries out for a midfield of Tuilagi and Lawrence alongside him and some gas on the wings, but for a number of reasons (injury and suspensions), that never came to pass, which is a great shame.

In short, the concerning thing facing England is whilst they have a fall back position to select a serviceable midfield, they simply are no further forward in understanding the strength of their options than they were before the tournament started.

Basics bolted

One of Steve Borthwick’s calls to arms was his promise to fix England’s set-piece, and to an extent, he delivered on that promise as his team were the most successful and legal scrummaging side in the competition and also lost only two lineouts all tournament. The aerial set-piece also seemed to come together, so judged on those promises, progress was made.

However, in terms of the depth of lineout plays, it was a case of scraping through with simplicity; no bad thing, admittedly, but at no point did England offer the depth of breakaway, maul and dummy options from their jumpers that say Ireland, Italy or France possess.

Shortened lineouts, two jumpers around a hinge was the primary order of the day, which neutered England’s ability to extend and pressure from the longer ball, often the best form of attacking platform. Nevertheless, this is again a work in progress, and England achieved their primary aim – reliability – and from that, they can now bolt on more variety from their set-piece.

In terms of defence, Kevin Sinfield is a wonderful motivator, but his systems were caught out on a number of occasions, notably the first Damian Penaud try at Twickenham and Dan Sheehan’s opener in Dublin. With Penaud, England’s rusty pendulum failed to swing from simple first phase, leaving no boot drift man covering across to the openside wing, a criminal offence at Test level.

The Sheehan try was down to failures in basic back-row defence; the number eight defending the 10/12 channel from a lineout has one aim above all – to stay inside the carrier to prevent a straight run. Alex Dombrandt got hopelessly out of system, outside of the carrier and let Sheehan through on his left shoulder. Nevertheless, against Ireland overall, the ‘D’ looked sharper and had the pace of rush that is essential for Sinfield’s methods.

In short, England just about lived up to their coaches’ promises around the basics, but there’s a lot more work still to be done to get up to the elite levels of other teams.

Something old, something new?

In terms of selection and talent identification, the biggest disappointment for many was that England learned very little about the depth of talent available to them. In fact, one could argue that Borthwick has spent five games learning what Eddie Jones had already discovered and simply confirmed that England lack power, midfield balance and pace.

Again, this has to be discussed in the context of two parts of the Borthwick plan – here and now and post-World Cup. By sticking largely to the players Jones had tried and tested, big gains were never likely, and it remains a mystery why some outstanding fringe performers, like Val Rapava-Ruskin, Tom Pearson, Ruan Ackermann and Cadan Murley weren’t tried in battle during the tournament.

The biggest concern in terms of selection will be that England are lacking the 10 or so pillar players, the ones you build a team and a campaign upon. Right now, only Ellis Genge, Owen Farrell and Freddie Steward fall into that category, with honourable mentions for Jack Willis, Lewis Ludlam, Maro Itoje, Ollie Lawrence and Ollie Chessum, all of whom had good moments during the tournament.

Put simply, there’s always a hundred voices on social media shouting loudly about a wide group of fringe players who should be picked, but those options are always ‘might do better’ over ‘will do better’ and until those players are tested, the point is moot.

However, the England coaches do know that come the World Cup selection, Tom Curry, Courtney Lawes, and Zach Mercer will all be available. That’s game-changing as two are world-class Test animals, and on the basis of the Top 14, Mercer isn’t that far behind them.

Brand building

Moving forward, Borthwick and Sinfield have bought themselves a little credit with the green shoots of a promising display in Dublin, and a good win in Cardiff. But to claim this was an improvement over Eddie Jones is simply wrong. It might be in time, but at the moment, England are no further forward than when Jones was shown the door by the RFU.

The build-up to the World Cup is crucial and a time where fitness needs to be improved (England’s drop-off in the last quarter of every match was noticeable), selection honed, and options explored.

There’s a need to fix half-backs, sort out a balanced midfield, get power into the carry and tackle and some gas on the finishing wings.

Above all, the one thing Borthwick cannot afford to do is to consider this campaign either successful or a step forward. He needs honesty in measuring where England are and integrity in understanding the need to improve, and that starts with accepting that the last five games have been nothing more than a consolidation job.

Simply repeating the selections and game plans of his predecessor aren’t likely to result in any change in performance, and for progression, it’s now key that Borthwick explores other options and creates his own brand of England, both in terms of strategy, personnel and tactics.

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