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England's overrated pack need to find some steel or risk being done by Scotland again

By Ben Smith
(Photo by Dan Mullan - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images and David Rogers/Getty Images)

Since England’s demoralising 61-21 win over Scotland in the 2017 Six Nations, Gregor Townsend’s side has put together a five-year run that has seen the Calcutta Cup remain north four times.


Whilst Townsend’s side are renown for wanting to use a lot of width in attack, the last two wins in 2021 and 2022 have really been built on defence, grinding out a four point win at Twickenham and a three point win at Murrayfield.

They limited England to a tryless showing two years ago and last year’s contest saw just one conceded to Marcus Smith on a short side scamper.

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Scotland have been very comfortable without the ball having refined a tight defence that is disciplined making reads and staying non-committal until they need to.

In last year’s Calcutta Cup fixture they logged a 94 per cent tackle rate, offering very little for England to work with.

At the same time England’s attack has been blunt, which played into Scotland’s hands as they soaked up pressure and then removed the threat by creating turnovers or forcing errors.

No 8 Matt Fagerson was an important piece for their defence last year, defending the midfield channel on shorter line outs and handling England’s sizable ball carriers, either loose forwards or centres.


His 13 tackles at a 100 per cent completion was only bettered by Hamish Watson, who had 14 from 14, while Fagerson’s carry game lays a platform for Scotland’s gain line when they need it.

In the first half the home side had all of 28 per cent territory and 38 per cent possession but went to the sheds up 10-6, which speaks to the ineffectiveness of England’s power game which was nullified by the Scots.

Kyle Sinckler, Tom Curry, Sam Simmonds and Luke Cowan-Dickie were asked to carry hard a lot but were often met with two-man tackles, robbing them of forward momentum at times by holding them up and making a mess of the breakdown.

A lack of ball movement from England’s engine room meant the one-out runners were swallowed up by the purple wall. Just two offloads were attempted by the starting forward pack, with a total of 22 passes between them on 57 carries.


England’s pack last year was overrated, the big names had minimal impact and in some cases were a net negative.

Itoje’s performance at Murrayfield was soft for a player of his calibre, lacking strength over the ball, execution of clean outs, and generally showing no enthusiasm for the contest until the latter stages.

England need their best player to get into the niggle, disrupt play and win turnovers at the breakdown which was completely absent against Scotland last year. An Itoje with fire can lead their pack out of their two-year Six Nations malaise by making a nuisance of himself.

Steve Borthwick will need to instill a better in-game work ethic and inspire more dynamism out of his players or Scotland’s hard working forwards will happily chew them up again.

England’s pack last looked ruthless when Borthwick was in charge as forwards coach in 2019, so he might just be the man to find that level again and reform this pack into a hungry bunch instead of the slapdash pack that we saw last year.

The team was fourth in dominant tackles and fourth in turnovers won in the last Six Nations, two areas which England would like to be better in.

Last year’s England backline at Murrayfield was undermanned but was also a makeshift lineup lacking balance by playing nearly all the outside backs out of their best positions.

The midfield of Henry Slade at 12 and Elliot Daly at 13 did not really work well with Marcus Smith, while fullback Max Malins on the right wing and centre Joe Marchant on the left just illustrated how warped the thinking had become.

Evens so, England could have easily won the match, they were up 17-10 with twenty minutes to go, but two cross-field kicks in quick succession drew a penalty try when Cowan-Dickie batted the ball directly into touch.

The England hooker copped a lot of blame but their inexperienced back three did not handle the situation all that well, leaving the front rower all alone to cover the edge. The pinpoint kicks from Finn Russell manipulated their pendulum and created a mismatch.

Ill-discipline cost penalties that then allowed Scotland to work their way in position to kick the go-ahead penalty. Scotland really did not play all that much with ball-in-hand to secure the win, scoring two tries from launches within two phases.

The midfield had three carries and zero running metres between them. Hogg and the wingers took a lot of carries on kick returns or in Van der Merwe’s case, first phase, but not much else outside of that.

It was a very compact attacking game by Scotland that just let England tire themselves out. Scotland’s gritty forwards outplayed them, in defence and in the details around the ruck.

That kind of performance and result cannot happen again for England and the RFU have said as much by ending the Jones era early. England haven’t lost three years in a row to Scotland since 1972.

If this pack is outplayed again by Scotland for a third straight year, many of the experienced names could start having their places questioned. That means big names like Itoje, Genge, Sinckler.

Because if you can’t handle Scotland, how are you going to deal with Ireland or France? It’s an untenable position for the RFU to stomach.

Billy Vunipola was left out of Borthwick’s squad but many more stars could have faced the chop and perhaps could still yet.

The playing group need to open the Borthwick era with an emphatic win as much as the RFU do, as they will be next in line after Jones’ sudden departure.


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