England need to solve their identity crisis fast – Andy Goode
It may only be the second of four warm-up games and more tinkering might normally be expected but we’ve seen very little cohesion or clarity of game plan at all thus far under Steve Borthwick and that has to change today.
With the likes of Manu Tuilagi, Anthony Watson, Tom Curry and a few others still to come in, a lot of the combinations will be slightly different in Marseille to kick off the World Cup campaign but it’s a much more familiar looking line-up and, crucially, Owen Farrell is pulling the strings.
It’s amazing to think that this is just the England captain’s fifth Test start at fly half in the last three years since the autumn of 2020 and we’ve seen him take his game to another level as the fulcrum for Saracens over that period of time.
Marcus Smith is a hell of a talent, as Warren Gatland has been at pains to point out this week, but Farrell has been shunted out to inside centre far too often to accommodate him or George Ford and now it’s time for him to stamp his authority on this team and get a run of games in the number 10 jersey.
The last time Farrell started more than three consecutive Tests at fly half was before the last World Cup in the 2019 Six Nations and, with England having their biggest two pool games against Argentina and Japan first up, he has to be given the next three warm-up games to get his team up to speed.
Farrell’s is obviously the first name on the team sheet but he needs a few of the other experienced heads, who most people assume are inked in to the starting XV already, to step up to the plate as well.
If you want to stand any chance of winning a World Cup, you need your world class players to rise to the occasion and too many of England’s biggest stars have been off the boil of late. Maro Itoje, for example, has been well below the standards he’s set in previous years.
He’s the most senior second row in the squad by a mile, with Courtney Lawes having not started there since the last World Cup, and England need him to hit his 2019 heights if they are to go deep into the tournament.
Alongside Itoje, in the absence of the injured Ollie Chessum, it’s a big day for George Martin as he starts back-to-back games and he’s a classic Borthwick type player so he may only be 22-years-old and have a couple of caps to his name but he could find himself as first choice lock if he goes well.
Speaking of the second row, it’s a very weird situation for Jonny Hill, who was cut from the World Cup squad on Monday but now finds himself on the bench for one of the subsequent warm-up games.
Personally, I’d have picked the squad after this weekend’s game and given more players opportunities in the first two warm-up games. Cadan Murley didn’t get a chance at all but Borthwick has chosen to go down this route and Hill finds himself in an odd position as a result.
It’s great to see Billy Vunipola back after he spoke candidly this week about the falling out he had with Borthwick and it’s a huge occasion for his clubmate Ben Earl, making his first Test start after 15 replacement appearances and three and a half years on from his debut.
He’s been arguably the best player in the Premiership over the past couple of years but I have to admit I thought he wasn’t even going to make the squad when he wasn’t included in the match day 23 to travel to Cardiff last week and considering he fell out of favour after the opening couple of rounds of this year’s Six Nations.
It’s a tough ask for him to play his way into the starting XV for the tournament with Curry, Lawes, Jack Willis and co for company but his explosivity and ability to break tackles are a real point of difference and hopefully we get to see that.
There are definitely places in the starting XV to face the Pumas to play for though because, despite Borthwick seeming like he knows who he wants to go for, very few players have grabbed the shirt by the scruff of the neck.
This first home warm-up game is more about building confidence and starting to see a pattern of play developing under Borthwick though because, let’s be honest, there’s been very little to hang your hat on so far and it can’t get any worse than last week.
England made 19 handling errors, conceded 23 turnovers and didn’t score a single try from their 12 visits to the opposition 22 at the Principality Stadium so they have to be more accurate but, more importantly, they need to have much more clarity about how they’re trying to play.
The players looked lost at times in Cardiff, and during this year’s Six Nations, as if they didn’t really know what was expected of them. They need to not be afraid to make errors and be able to express themselves but there has to be more direction.
We still haven’t seen much in terms of structure in the attacking game, whether it’s going out the back or having multiple layers in attack, and there’s a real opportunity to get fans excited at Twickenham this weekend and just start to get a few more people believing.
I know six games isn’t a lot for a head coach to have had in order to really put his imprint on a team but a lack of time can’t be used as an excuse to fall back on any more and we just have to start seeing the way England are going to attack under Borthwick.
There’s no doubt they’re favourites this week and it might be a warm-up game but there is pressure on them because they’re playing in front of a home crowd and there is expectation. The stage is set and now we need to see the real England stand up.
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