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Five takeaways from latest England Six Nations loss to Scotland

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Saturday’s Six Nations match programme had new England boss Steve Borthwick pictured on its cover with a revealing interview inside. “I have a lot of regrets from my career, loads of them. I wish I could go back, rewind and change things,” he candidly chirped. How very prescient given what unfolded, a classic contest where the new head coach was left regretful by the result.

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Borthwick had been careful during his 50-or-so days in charge not to throw shade in Eddie Jones’ direction. After all, they had a long association of working together with England and Japan, Borthwick taking the forwards with Jones as head coach. However, the new head coach’s final answer at his post-game media briefing was the first time there was a distinct criticism of the team he has inherited as head coach.

“It’s clear to say right now that the England set-piece in recent times has not been strong and you always want to have a strong set-piece, a strong scrum and a strong maul and those are going to take time to build but we are going to persevere with those.

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England fans slam atmosphere at Twickenham after loss to Scotland | Six Nations 2023

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England fans slam atmosphere at Twickenham after loss to Scotland | Six Nations 2023

“Those things don’t happen quickly. We have got to develop that. England hasn’t had a strong maul for a few years now. What we have got to make sure is we get better so that we have different weapons in our game.”

That issue with not having a trusted maul, something that has robbed Maro Itoje of some of his trademark X-factor, was seen in the lead-up to the opening Max Malins try. England had a penalty and instead of kicking to touch and mauling from five metres out, a potent weapon in times past when reaching the World Cup final and winning Six Nations titles, Ellis Genge tapped and England didn’t come close to scoring in that corner, getting driven back.

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Yes, they scored in the other corner multi-phases later from Marcus Smith’s kick to Max Malins, which deserved kudos as they showed encouraging patience to keep the ball alive and trust in putting it through many hands, but a lineout drive would have been the easier, less fussy way to score. Sounds like Borthwick had better get to work quickly with his dissatisfactory inheritance or those career regrets he talked about in the programme will have an unwanted new chapter.

Van der Merwe’s Edwards moment
Clive Woodward would never strike anyone as a clairvoyant but Duhan van der Merwe must surely have read his pre-game Sportsmail column given what transpired with that thrilling Jonah Lomu-type try he scored, devastatingly skittling one would-be England tackler after another.

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In his piece, the 2003 World Cup winner wrote: “It was interesting to read last week about the 50th anniversary of Gareth Edwards’ famous Barbarians try against New Zealand. We’re still talking about it half a century later. The challenge I’d like to lay down to the players taking the field this year is to produce something equally as memorable and which will be part of rugby folklore forever, in the same way that Edwards’ try is and always will be.”

Van der Merwe’s score definitely fits that ‘folklore’ category as no player should be scoring in the audacious solo fashion that he did, especially in an era where rugby league-type defence rules. But he did and rugby was all the better for it.

Overall, the sport came out shining from its opening two matches, Normally, the opening rounds of the Six Nations witness too much muck rugby, teams playing with the handbrake on due to short preparation times and the weather normally a spoilsport. Not on Saturday.

With the roof closed in Cardiff and a dry ball in Twickenham, a feast of attacking rugby materialised. A dozen tries in 160 minutes and two easy-on-the-eye contests were just what was needed after too many negative headlines over the winter. Brilliant.

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Some 10/12 promise… at last!
Saturday was the eighth occasion that Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell ran out for England as a 10/12 partnership and despite this Six Nations loss, it was their best attacking effort yet. Farrell often stepped into the 10 role, allowing Smith to probe in the backfield for an edge, and it gave Borthwick’s side the feeling that it had tries in it unlike during the Autumn Nations Series when the attack was too structured and too blunt.

Call it the Nick Evans effect. Getting rid of the uninspired Martin Gleeson and replacing him with the Harlequins attack coach was the most interesting appointment on the Borthwick staff and the decision by the head coach to stick by a partnership that hadn’t gelled under Jones was his biggest round-one selection call. Not the axing of old Jones favourite Manu Tuilagi, which generated so many headlines on Thursday.

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The greater interchangeability of Smith and Farrell in attempts to manipulate the Scottish defence was an encouraging first step with Evans now the attack coach entrusted to get the best from a 10/12 partnership that fans had lost patience with. In the series-ending defeat to South Africa, where the only England try in a war of attrition came eight minutes from time, Smith made just three ball carries and Farrell just two for respective 24 and 17-metre gains.

Versus the Scots, taking the ball on and asking questions of the defence was very much in their arsenal, Smith signing off with 112 metres from 14 carries and Farrell 56 metres from 11. Yes, there was still plenty of kicking, but the ambition the pair showed was a very different picture than what existed with the Jones shackles on. All that said, though, the debate will rage on over England sticking with two out-halves as a partnership and not the Scotland route of a playmaking 10 fixed alongside a specialist 12. Finn Russell and Sione Tuipulotu were class.

Round one habit that continues to suck
What is it with England and their now wounding habitual inability to get fully dressed and be fully ready for the opening match in blocks of fixtures such as the start of the Six Nations?

Saturday was the fourth season in succession that they lost in the opening round of the championship, an embarrassing statistic that is further fuelled by them losing the opening match of their Australian tour last year and also the first match of the recent Autumn Nations Series against Argentina.

It’s a damaging trend that has to stop, especially with the Argies first up at the World Cup next September in Marseille. When he gets the chance to catch a breath in the fallow week between rounds two and three, Borthwick must forensically review his two-week preparation period and assess where England might have been lacking in putting their game together on the training ground and getting the mood right in camp.

Losing opening matches isn’t 100 per cent guaranteed to be fatal. England won the 2020 championship after losing first-up in Paris, while they also hit back to win the tour series in Australia. But still, it’s a terrible look to be frequent first-day losers and the chance of the Grand Slam repeatedly going up in smoke so soon.

Borwthwick tried not to sound overly distressed in his post-games summations, claiming he saw growth and improvement in England despite November’s series and also refusing to bag his mate Kevin Sinfield over the concession of four defendable tries. It was an upbeat tone in contrast to the post-game vibe from Gregor Townsend, his opposite number.

Beating England was nothing new to him as was beating them in Six Nations round one. So rather than punch the air with glee and be jubilant, he was all too aware of how his team has its own infuriating habit of winning big one week and flopping the next. Wales at home next Saturday was very much on his mind. That’s a match the Scots simply can’t lose if beating England is to have lasting credibility on this occasion.

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Anyone for spare tickets?
A strange thing happened at Twickenham rail station on Saturday night. Normally it’s carnage trying to get into the station and get away but the usual crush and squeeze were curiously absent three hours after post-game. Could be it that England fans have finally tired of the negative results and drowning sorrows with pricey beer in the area just isn’t worth the hassle on an expensive day out?

It’s quite the home rot that England are enduring, just a single win now in their last six matches at Rugby HQ (seven if you include the gaffe versus the Barbarians), and it’s reflected in ticket sales for next weekend’s round two Six Nations match with Italy. Twickenham has 138 blocks of seats spread across its three tiers but just seven were completely sold out when RugbyPass checked online overnight.

Admittedly, the percentage of tickets on sale in most available blocks ranged from between just one and four per cent but all the same, with the cheapest junior tickets retailing at £30 and the cheapest adult tickets coming in at £93 but mostly £108, it’s a lot of notes to shell out on a team struggling to produce the goods.

New boss Borthwick is trying to play his part in drumming up noise outside of results. A video message from the coach to the fans was aired just before kick-off versus the Scots asking them to give it socks and he described them as incredible at his post-game media briefing to try and keep them onside. He was genuine in what he said but without the win, his sentiment rang hollow.

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3 Comments
P
P8-it-Black 496 days ago

Was a very good solo effort. Looking at the steps and swerves and final fend, I would say it was more Cullen-esque than Lomu...

J
John 497 days ago

Not sure what you saw in the 10/12 link that I missed but I thought the midfield for England was rubbish. No go forward, no asking questions of the opposition and no putting the back 4 into space. England has to pick either Smith or Farrell and from what I saw Smith is by far the better option. Farrell is a liability at 12 and not much better at 10

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