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The bold call Borthwick must make after abject Samoa showing – Andy Goode

By Andy Goode
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Steve Borthwick has some huge decisions to make after England’s abject showing against Samoa, especially at fly half, and he has to be bold.

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It always felt like George Ford and Owen Farrell were both selected at the weekend because he didn’t want to choose between them and had been forced into a corner by the former’s form and the latter’s captaincy status but this team ain’t big enough for the both of them now.

He has to make a big call and if the opposition was different I’d be tempted to stick with Ford but Fiji are going to send big runner after big runner down the number 10 channel and Ford might not be missing many tackles but he’s soaking them up and England are losing ground.

Opting for Farrell is also the safer or less controversial decision and Borthwick isn’t someone who naturally wants to ruffle feathers. The Saracens man clearly drives standards but it does seem like he has a looming presence that can also have a negative effect on those around him when he’s either playing second fiddle or not on top of his game.

Ford Farrell England Rugby World Cup
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It feels like groundhog day discussing this again but I honestly don’t think Ford and Farrell have shone alongside one another, or even that Farrell has had a really good game at centre, since the World Cup semi-final four years ago.

You can’t pick on past glory or in the belief that the magic from one game four years ago, however exceptional it was, will suddenly resurface when it matters most and that selection obviously has a massive knock-on effect in other areas of the team.

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You have to pick on form and Joe Marchant has been playing well. He’s capable of playing on the wing but can’t have as much of an impact on proceedings from there so he should be paired with Manu Tuilagi in the centres again for the quarter-final.

That would free up a spot on the wing for five-try Henry Arundell to come in and add a bit of much-needed stardust and game-breaking ability to the backline, as well as just looking like there are fewer square pegs in round holes.

I’d actually change both wingers because I think Jonny May is another who is being picked on what he’s done in years gone by rather than his threat to opposition defences in the here and now.

We know Borthwick is massively driven by data and he will have his own metrics that probably show that the Gloucester man is more effective at chasing kicks and being in the right position but he’s 33 and has clearly lost a yard of pace.

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RFU England injuries Daly George
England’s Elliot Daly (Photo by John Berry/Getty Images)

I’d be picking Elliot Daly as well as Arundell and his ability to cover a multitude of positions and his enormous left boot could be major advantages in the knockout stages.

I can’t see there being many, if any, changes in the forwards, even if they did struggle against the Samoans as well. Dan Cole is probably most under threat but Borthwick will probably back him to do a job on the Fijian set piece.

I’m not sure any of them are playing particularly well but the reality is that there just isn’t really anyone breathing down the necks of the likes of Maro Itoje, Ellis Genge, Courtney Lawes and Tom Curry.

There has to be a change in mindset though. Lawes speaks really well and has admitted that England’s DNA is their ability in defence and building attack off kicks that they’ve retrieved but I don’t think that is the way to beat Fiji.

Simon Raiwalui’s men might have been far from their best but Portugal showed the blueprint for how to beat them by getting the ball wide and playing with a high tempo in order to fatigue them.

They still utilised the kicking game plenty but there were a lot of short kicks rather than just hoofing the ball long and asking Fiji to play from deep and they were happy to keep the ball in hand as well in a way that we haven’t seen England do for a while.

Portugal
Francisco Fernandes of Portugal celebrates with teammates after scoring his team’s second try during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between Fiji and Portugal at Stadium de Toulouse on October 08, 2023 in Toulouse, France. (Photo by Julian Finney – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

When you watch a team like Portugal play as they have done in this tournament and you also look at how Ireland, at the other of the spectrum, retain possession and manipulate defences, you wonder why England have adopted the game plan that they have.

Evidently, Borthwick believes it’s the best chance he has of winning or he wouldn’t be doing it but it’s like going back to the dark ages, or the 1990s at least, and it is far from exciting to watch regardless of how much the head honcho talks about his excitement levels.

Just 34% of England’s rucks on Saturday were under three seconds, which is around half of what you might expect from a top team that is playing with intent, and when they do get the ball away from the breakdown their thinking is muddled.

When your ball is slow the opposition defence has had chance to reorganise and it’s more difficult to attack but you have to question England’s decision making when they’re getting into the opposition 22 as many as 17 times and only coming away with a couple of tries.

Maybe the England coaching staff will say that it’s all part of the plan with work going on behind the scenes after a two-week break since the previous game and a three-week gap for quite a lot of players who didn’t feature in the Chile match.

That was the explanation for the poor performances in the Summer Nations Series and England certainly looked fitter in their opening games against Argentina and Japan, even if they didn’t set the world alight, but we can only judge on what we see on the pitch.

Semi Radradra of Fiji is tackled by Sam Costelow of Wales

Fiji should be buoyed by the return of Semi Radradra and the adrenalin of a first quarter-final for 16 years will carry them a long way but they’ve had four energy-sapping encounters thus far and the tank has looked like it’s running low in the past couple of games.

Maybe England’s superior fitness will tell but I think we need a change in the game plan if we’re going to really stress the Fijians and try to exploit that and create opportunities to attack off the back of it.

England’s players have looked like they’re playing in a straitjacket for a long time now, since well before Borthwick took the reins, so we aren’t going to see the game plan ripped up and them playing with freedom but there has to be a bit of room for manoeuvre.

Most importantly, we need one fly half out there. I fully expect it to be England’s new all-time leading points scorer but you can make a case for either. Borthwick simply has to pick one, though, and not be afraid of upsetting the applecart.

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27 Comments
M
Mark 247 days ago

The brutal truth is, as alluded to by andy goode is that not nearly enough of Englands current squad are performing anywhere near the level required for international rugby.
Cole, marler, George, lawes, vunipola, youngs, tuilagi, may are all yesterday’s men.
Add to that list genge, sinckler and itoji and farrell, all of who’s form has fallen off of a cliff and its fairly apparent why England are playing so poorly.
Borthwicks selection policy has proven to be as incoherent as his predecessors.

N
Neil 247 days ago

Is it possible Borthwick was giving a few a run out in the Samoa game as it was essentially a dead-rubber game? I’m looking at May and Manu specifically. I’d be very surprised if either starts - or is on the bench, against Fiji. I can see the logic of Daly’s inclusion, but we need the ‘stardust’ this weekend if only because (certainly in Arundell’s case) they’re unknown to the opposition and - importantly, have plenty of gas in the tank. Fiji look brilliant going forward, less so when on the turn.

D
Diarmid 247 days ago

Portugal showed that the key to beating Fiji is to play high tempo… sure, but when was the last time England played at any tempo other than one pass, caterpillar ruck, boot the ball. i can’t remember, maybe 2019 against the All Blacks. Portugal played at pace and took calculated risks last night. This England team is risk-averse from 1-23 (assuming Smith and Arundel, their only two creative players are again not picked by Borthwick) and lack the basic skills to pass the ball along the backs to the wing, run intelligent support lines or draw a defender and pass to someone in space. i hope for the sake of rugby that Fiji find their form again and give them a proper hiding so England can take a proper look at themselves, get rid of the morons at the top of the RFU, replace Borthwick with somebody who knows the game (imagine four more years of Borthwick trying to outwit managers like Razer, Galthié, Edwards, Schmidt, Erasmus, Gatland, Townsend.
Bill Sweeney should do the honorable thing and resign and along with him Borthwick, Farrell, Ford, Tuilagi, May, Marler and Cole should quietly take a step back and let the next generation step in and at least set out to play some entertaining rugby. This “win at all costs” approach by the RFU, England team management and the team itself has resulted in losing at a massive cost to the grassroots game, the domestic league and this sorry excuse for an England team.
Time for a change of guard. in any other sport or industry, performing like this would result in instant dismissal.

B
BigMaul 247 days ago

I agree that they need to pick just one 10. I’ve been saying it for nearly 10 years.

I don’t agree with your suggestion that going with Farrell is “safer or less controversial”. The opposite is in fact true. Farrell is out of form and is a card risk. His selection would also mean overhauling a winning formula. Ford is in form, is the incumbent and is as consistent as they come. What’s your basis for thinking Farrell is safer or less controversial?

It’s similar with your suggestion that Ford would be a liability against Fiji in defence and Farrell somehow would not be. Fords tackle completion percentage is better than Farrell’s. He also doesn’t pick up cards for dangerous hits. Yes, he might not make a dominant tackle, but I would take that any day over missed tackles, no arm tackles and head shots which is the risk you run with Farrell. Again, there’s no basis or justification for your suggestion.

R
Robbie 247 days ago

Fully support Jon, would also pick Care from the start.

T
Tom 247 days ago

Ford, Lawrence, Marchant for me. I don't see what Tuilagi has done to be worth his spot, he's another living on past glories. We heard all this talk of how pumped he was to be playing Samoa and I saw very little that impressed. Even his big carries may make some yards after contact but he's so slow these days it's not stressing defences. Lawrence has shown much more hunger and dynamism.

J
Jon 247 days ago

I think England need to go for broke. Yes Farrell, Tuilagi and Marchant at 10, 12, 13 to provide defensive heft. But I think we need Steward on the wing, but providing a sweeper role to collect the high kicks. With Smith at full back and Arundel on the other wing to provide speed in attack.

P
Poe 247 days ago

England ripe for the taking by a brave skillful try ball running Fiji. England will no doubt kill the ball, slow the game and play for penalties and cards.

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