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Electric attack and three other third-place England talking points

By Liam Heagney
Ollie Lawrence celebrates with teammates after scoring his second England try in Lyon (Photo by Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images)

Hands up. Three weeks ago when writing in an Edinburgh airport café about how England continued to be a second-rate Guinness Six Nations team on foot of the gut-wrenching capitulation to Scotland, RugbyPass never imagined it would be sitting on a train pulling out of Lyon on Sunday morning filing a tournament-finishing piece about how bloody marvellous the English suddenly are because of how they played against Ireland and France.

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The March expectation was to be blowing raspberries at Steve Borthwick and co, that yet another depressing two-wins-from-five campaign would be recorded and that the recent bronze medal finish at the Rugby World Cup would be left resembling a bad joke.

And now? Well played, England. You at last found your mojo and showed you are genuinely capable of playing an exciting brand of rugby that we didn’t think was possible.

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Of course, it shouldn’t take a sobering defeat to shock a team into life. These players are professionals and their baseline should always be a skilled level of consistency in performance, not inexplicable fadeouts, as occurred at Murrayfield, nor the repeatedly dull style of play that even had their own fans booing at the World Cup.

It’s as if someone finally got into the stubborn Borthwick’s ear after what had materialised in Scotland as, all of a sudden, there was a potency about them that hadn’t previously existed.

Ruck Speed

0-3 secs
46%
36%
3-6 secs
25%
32%
6+ secs
26%
30%
91
Rucks Won
49

Take their best performance in the head coach’s first 19 games in charge: It was Owen Farrell’s boot that got them so very close to eliminating South Africa in the semi-final, not ball-in-hand creativity.

Now they are scoring tries for fun, two versus Ireland and double that number against France, hurting defences that you felt last month they were incapable of threatening. That’s exciting.

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It ultimately wasn’t enough to take the French down seven days after the Irish were trapped in London, but the third-placed England are finally trending upwards in a pleasurable way and it has generated optimism for their future under Borthwick. Here are the RugbyPass talking points coming out of Lyon:

Display versus Ireland backed up
It was a privilege to be at the Groupama Stadium. As a destination, Lyon carried on the buzz from its World Cup hosting and the pre-game lights and fireworks show built things up beautifully for the Six Nations classic that was to follow.

France undoubtedly were in the mood to dazzle. Look at how they beat 36 defenders and offloaded 10 times compared to England’s 18DBs and just two tempo-quickening transfers, But the English brought an invaluable defiance to not give in to this swagger.

A 3-16 scoreline would have been a fair enough reflection on the first half, but the England score on the blow of half-time was critical and for them to come back out and add two more in the first six minutes was quite an extraordinary watch – three tries in seven minutes away from home in France. Electric.

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Ollie Lawrence deserved many plaudits. Here is a player who managed just two tries in 21 Test appearances before this month. However, things have now clicked for a confidence-type player who needed to get on the ball to thrive.

Three tries in two matches is no mean feat, an achievement assisted by the sterling George Ford having the initiative to put the ball through the hands a bit more.

For England to also strike with that 75th-minute score after they had fallen behind again was engrossing – Ford’s flick-on was quite the skill.

Now there will naturally be angst that they were caught by that last-minute Earl infringement, which allowed Thomas Ramos to do a Handre Pollard on them and bag the 31-33 win, but it was only seven days earlier when the last-minute boot was on the other foot versus Ireland and England were the team celebrating. That’s rugby.

What it showed was there is very little between teams in this tournament when they are both playing well and England putting in successive top performances deserves kudos. They said post-Ireland they had to back it up and they did – just without getting the W.

Minus points difference not a good look
If there is a lesson for England to take now that the championship has wrapped up it’s that they have to continue to broaden their attack and score more points if they are to catch up with Ireland, not revert to the dull type of 2023.

They finished with 13 tries scored, the same as France and Wales, one more than Scotland and four more than the fast-improving Italy. On the other side of the ledger, their 13 tries conceded matched Scotland, was one better than France and three better than Italy’s 16.

That reads well against the tournament’s other teams but England scored six tries less than Ireland’s 19 and also conceded six more than Ireland’s seven. They signed off with a -5 points difference, a reflection of the closeness of four of their games but also another sign of how far they need to go to catch Ireland who were 89 points better off with their +84.

Set-piece hot take not quite on the money  
Skipper Jamie George was blowing some smoke in the immediate aftermath. “Not many teams come and front up in the set-piece in France like we did,” he said.

In fairness, he wasn’t a million miles off. England did scrummage well with their starting front row – Ellis Genge, for example, won the penalty off Uini Atonio to allow Ford to open the scoring at 3-0.

However, while you would also think that a 13/15 return on your own lineout was also healthy, the truth of the matter was that the French scored two tries off the two throws England didn’t get right.

George threw the first mishap, Francois Cros stealing at the front of the lineout ahead of George Martin to secure the possession for Nolann Le Garrec to score off the counterattack. Then came Theo Dan’s overthrow on halfway which was hacked on by Ramos for Fickou’s lead-taking try on the hour.

Those two set-piece losses were critical to the defeat as was the game’s overall penalty count. England conceded 10, which was double France’s five, and the last infringement ultimately influenced the result.

The Smith debate that needs to happen
England could do with a few more ball-carrying forwards. While Ben Earl was able to carry the load the previous week and blow Ireland away by posting a metres carried total that eclipsed what the combined 14 Irish forwards managed, he was a marked man in Lyon.

He still did very well. Thirty-eight metres from 11 carries away to France is no mean feat, especially when it included that break that created the Marcus Smith try and also the carry in the lead-up to the second Lawrence score.

While Ellis Genge and Maro Itoje chipped in and made it to double figures with their respective 23- and 12-metre figures from their four and five carries, George and Cole didn’t move the dial and neither did replacements Joe Marler, Will Stuart, Ethan Roots and Alex Dombrandt, while George Martin, Ollie Chessum, Sam Underhill and Theo Dan were all single digit carriers.

Mention of Smith as a scorer, he was entertaining to watch going forward and he also gave the assist for the consistently excellent Freeman to get over. But defensively he didn’t have what was needed, being centrally involved in two of the three French tries and also getting isolated at a ruck for the no-release infringement that gave the hosts their opening penalty points.

No one would have anticipated Smith being a used replacement as early as the eighth minute, but that swop wounded the England defence and the post-mortem debate that needs to be had is whether what Smith achieved in attack made up for what he struggled with defensively.

One thing for certain is he didn’t mope when something went wrong, an attitude that reflected well on him.

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