'Atrocious... the players are all carbon copy versions of Borthwick'
George Robson has criticised the England approach heading into the Rugby World Cup, claiming that too much time has been dedicated to fitness and not enough emphasis placed on skills. Steve Borthwick’s side were comfortably beaten 9-20 last weekend in Cardiff in their Summer Nations Series opener, failing to score in the second half after leading 9-6 at the interval.
Head coach Borthwick has claimed that England would be sharper in the coming weeks, that heavy strength and conditioning blocks had left them inaccurate with the ball in their warm-up opener, but ex-Premiership title winner Robson isn’t convinced.
Asked what he had heard from inside the England camp about morale, the former Harlequins forward said: “Whenever there is a social media post from England it is someone on a Wattbike or in the gym or sprinting.
“There has been a big emphasis on the fitness side of things but no real cohesion from what they are doing from a game plan perspective and the skills side of things. It was evident at Cardiff; England went into the game fatigued.
“To me that would suggest more time should have been spent on working on combinations you are going to use on skill levels rather than beasting for the sake of beasting. How useful is it catching a rugby ball at full pace when you are on a Wattbike?
“To have 17 handling errors was atrocious by any measure. It certainly didn’t look like they had played much together. To me, those handling errors looked like a symptom of fatigue coupled with not having played much together.
“I felt sorry for that team which lost in Cardiff. It was like an old-school Probables vs Possibles game when they had already been told who was on the plane and who wasn’t. It didn’t give you much to be excited about as an England supporter because it was an atrocious 80 minutes of rugby. That is a serious problem.
“I have never seen so many players with their hands on their knees. The players are all carbon copy versions of Borthwick – lean low body fat, same shape. They all look the same. Whoever is responsible for timing that fitness into a game got it badly wrong because there is no way you can put players into a game like that so poorly prepared and off the pace.
“They were totally outclassed from a fitness-for-rugby perspective. They might have got amazing Wattbike scores and they have all been doing brilliant sessions together to build a shared unity. But does that make them fit for rugby? No. If you’re timing it and you don’t care then Saturday was collateral damage, and it was always going to happen.”
Borthwick has claimed that he has never seen the back-in-favour Billy Vunipola looking so fit. He was overlooked for the whole of the Guinness Six Nations but is now the only No8 in the squad after Alex Dombrandt was cut despite having started in that position in all six of the matches England had played in 2023.
Vunipola has been selected to start in that Saturday’s warm-up rematch with Wales, but Robson has his concerns. “Billy looks lean and light. They need to get a few more kgs on him,” he warned.
“There is nothing new to get excited by. He [Borthwick] is picking a squad solely on the basis of who is going to get us over the gain line. The key thing at the World Cup is being able to get forward and play on the front foot. Defences are so well organised now, everyone is big and powerful. There aren’t that many holes.
“You need to go forward and have ball carriers. That explains Billy Vunipola, I’d imagine Courtney Lawes is being wrapped up in cotton wool [Lawes isn’t as he is also starting this weekend’s game]. They are also reliant on Manu Tuilagi and it explains Ollie Lawrence too over the more nuanced Henry Slade.
“International level is far less forgiving. That explains his approach to selection. He has picked virtually every strong ball carrier there is in the club game. We haven’t got the monsters that France and South Africa have.
“We don’t have someone like Andre Esterhuizen at Harlequins, who is in the South Africa squad. You need someone like that to get you over the gain line. He is built like a second row and can run full tilt. There is no one I can think of like him in the English club game which explains why he has gone back to the likes of Vunipola.
“Relying on two players in Vunipola and Tuilagi, who are so often injured, there is a causal link there as to why they are so injured. They are explosive players and there aren’t that many in England and injury goes with the territory. They are subjected to more collisions, and they are heavily relied upon.”
Robson was also at a loss over the RWC squad exclusion of Sam Underhill, one of the stars of the 2019 England team that reached the World Cup final. “I don’t know why Johnny Hill is not in the squad, he has played well for Sale this season. Others will be feeling hard done by like Sam Underhill.
“I’m flabbergasted that Sam isn’t there. I really can’t understand what goes on there. He is an outstanding player. It seems so odd he’s fallen out of favour but no one explains why.
“They have gone with players they feel comfortable with, which explains the large number of Leicester and Saracens players. It appears there is some bias because they know those players and who seem to have credit in the bank, despite their performances or injury record.
“It’s ironic that they have reverted almost to Eddie Jones’ side from 2019. There are 12 players from that World Cup final, but that experience could hold them in good stead.
“It’s not all doom and gloom but this is a frustrating time to be an England supporter. They have not fired any shots, the leadership and management are deliberately not saying anything other than the blandest possible. It’s pretty much a phony war, digging in until the real games start.”
Mention the lack of an explanation for the absence of Underhill, what does Robson make of Borthwick’s stoic approach in front of the media? “The way he engages with the media is a necessary evil for him. He has decided to look at risk reward. He is very analytical, looks at the data, and has probably thought there is no one who has been able to manage the press really well.
“Borthwick has probably looked at it all, seen it ended in tears pretty much for everyone [the former England coaches] and decided not to bother and focus simply on what he can control. It is one of the hardest roles in sports with the constant criticism. It is damage control every time he faces the press.”
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