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Five takeaways from the England loss to Ireland in the Six Nations

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

It’s become too much of an England habit, getting reduced to frustrated bystanders on Six Nations final round day as the trophy gets presented to Grand Slam champions. It first happened in recent times in 2018 when Ireland swept the boards, wrapping it all up at Twickenham, and that lightning has since struck twice more in successive years, France celebrating in Paris last year and the Irish at it at the weekend, this time in Dublin.

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As nervous as Ireland were trying to clinch 2023 glory in their Aviva Stadium backyard and as defensively dogged were England in sensing that unease, there was never a single moment watching on from up in the media box that an upset was genuinely going to materialise.

Damage limitation – not going for broke to steal a win – was very much the overall vibe of this English display, which was understandable given the painful record spanking the week before by France followed by the onerous challenge of playing the entire second half versus the Irish a red-carded man down.

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Given those against-the-odds circumstances they can be pleased they emerged with kudos for not making things easy for Ireland and giving rugby fans the world over an engrossing contest to savour, but that satisfaction – in the cold light of day – plainly can’t be palatable as England should be faring way better than this. Here are five RugbyPass takeaways from what was the fifth English defeat in nine 2022/23 matches:

Increasingly lame inheritance excuse
England were the perfect fourth-place finisher when you glanced at the final table. They had the fourth-best points scored (100), the fourth-worst points conceded (135), the fourth-highest number of tries scored (13) and the fourth-most tries conceded (18).

It was the type of underwhelming campaign that allowed new head coach Steve Borthwick to keep grasping the excuse about there being a large gap between England and the best, but this constant reference about what he has inherited not being very good jarred the longer the tournament went on and it grated again when he once more referenced it in Dublin on Saturday night.

Not since Matt Williams oversaw Scotland in the early noughties has a Six Nations coach repeatedly branded the team he was given as generally not being very good. That narrative eventually led to the out-of-his-depth Williams getting sacked by the Scots less than two years in, and Borthwick now needs to stop using this lame excuse that his English inheritance isn’t worth much.

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The more he has said it, the less impact it has had. He was appointed as head coach for a reason, to coach England to better results via greater consistency in performance. He hasn’t delivered, and this cop-out blaming of Eddie Jones must stop.

As much as Borthwick likes to allege that England have made a right old mess of this World Cup cycle compared to rival nations such as Ireland and France, the reality is that he still went into battle in Dublin with 11 of the 23 veterans of the squad that made the 2019 World Cup final – a group he was involved with as an assistant.

In other words, these players aren’t all wet-behind-the-ear rookies who haven’t a clue. Instead, the spine is seasoned players who have done it at the highest level and the reality is they were let down by the ineffective game plans devised by their apprentice Test-level head coach – and what he provided them with in Dublin wasn’t a game-winning blueprint.

Borthwick was asked what he had personally learned from his first campaign in charge but, similar to how he dismissed queries about whether the Freddie Steward red card was merited, he infuriatingly dodged the question.

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He may genuinely be a nice man, but ‘boring’ Steve needs to wise up sharpish about his front-of-house Test rugby responsibilities and accept that he must better sell the game.

Rugby is an entertainment business and Borthwick’s snobbish refusal to offer proper insight to fans about himself and the mechanics of Team England will only damagingly count against him in the long run. Start playing ball, boss, and stop treating people like fools.

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Away day comfort
It’s a good job the World Cup isn’t an England 2023 tournament otherwise you’d fear a pool-stage elimination later this year. The English have been stinking out Twickenham all season, winning just two of seven matches at their HQ, and it is curious how they have looked a better team in their away games this year.

They grittily won in Wales last month, and it was only a one-point game until the 63rd minute in Dublin before the burden of being a red-carded man down eventually told on the scoreboard. It appears that the supposedly supportive atmosphere at ‘Pub’ Twickenham just doesn’t inspire them and they instead thrive on being an away day villain.

Their sequence of performances backs up this observation – remember as well that they were away series winners in Australia last July – so it is just as well that the upcoming finals are over in France, starting with that must-win September 9 opener against Argentina in Marseille. The more non-English fans in attendance, the better it could be for Borthwick’s England.

Thorny Evans/Smith issue
You must imagine that England’s temporary attack coach Nick Evans has been left feeling very awkward by how this Six Nations unfolded for Marcus Smith, his Harlequins colleague. Smith got a token 30-odd seconds off the bench at the end versus Wales, but even that was better than the zero involvement he had against Ireland as an unused sub.

With the exceedingly dull Martin Gleeson given the elbow for his misfiring efforts under Jones, Evans was the stopgap appointment at the start of the Six Nations tasked with igniting English creativity and coming up with the formula to get the best from the 10/12 Smith/Owen Farrell axis.

He was optimistic he could make that combo tick, but it got only a single start and most of the championship instead became Farrell being picked at No.10 ahead of Smith. That can’t be good for Evans’ domestic title-winning relationship with Smith and as much as he surely aspires to coach for longer at international level, it is at a stage now where it would be a surprise to see him continue under Borthwick and coach at the World Cup.

Not that Borthwick, as ever, was giving much away post-game about where the Harlequins assistant definitely stands going forward with England. “I have answered that question before and I’m happy to keep answering it,” he lectured. “I said at the end of the Six Nations we will have a good conversation with Nick about plans going forward.”

Intriguing Sexton titbit
The victorious Johnny Sexton was rightly chuffed with himself in the Dublin aftermath, appearing at the Ireland briefing with his title-winning medal dangling proudly around his neck. Naturally enough, he had plenty to say basking in his team’s glory but one titbit piqued the interest from an English perspective.

Asked about the influence of Andy Farrell as the Ireland head coach, he quipped: “The best thing about him is he hasn’t changed one bit going from assistant to head coach. He is still very popular even with the lads he doesn’t pick.”

That popularity doesn’t appear to be the case with Borthwick and England. Borthwick was an assistant under Jones until leaving in 2020 to become the Leicester boss but has a very different schoolmasterly-type personality compared to Farrell and allegations of a falling out with Billy Vunipola – a mainstay of the Test pack he would have coached – emerged this past week leading into the Ireland game.

He doesn’t explain himself well enough in public, so imagine what it must be like in private dealing with the players. With Alex Dombrandt again well below the requisite standard for Test-level No.8 in rugby, it would be completely understandable that Vunipola is indeed very angered by his omission given that he had the jersey for six of Jones’ last seven matches in charge.

The French-based Zach Mercer is now set to come into selection consideration ahead of the World Cup with his return to Gloucester inked, but his impending availability was another topic off limits with Borthwick. “I don’t think now is the right time to be talking about individuals. Right now, the players have put in an incredible effort.”

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Go poach Nigel Owens
Judging by his Saturday night comments, Borthwick is pinning so much on the long preparatory lead-in to the World Cup to cure England’s ills. “I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to work with the players for a period of time, the players will be conditioned then for international rugby, the players will understand how we want to play,” he suggested, a nodding reference to the impending arrival of fitness guru Aled Walters, the 2019 RWC winner with South Africa, on the Test staff.

You just hope that the coach – a second row in his club and country playing days who shows off by standing on top of a snazzy ladder during lineout practice (compared to the Irish who use an old-school fishing net for catching practice) – will dedicate plenty of time to re-establishing the England defensive lineout as a unit that doesn’t give opposition easy set-piece ball.

His forwards were penalised for closing the gap at one Irish lineout in their own 22 in the first half, a disappointingly sloppy development at a key moment in the game, and they went on to finish with zero lineout steals – not only for this round five match but for the entire five-game championship.

That’s quite the weakness when you consider that the Irish and the Scots each pilfered seven opposition throws in 2023. Defence wins championships, goes the old saying. Then get up and compete better in the air, England, and stop being so passive.

Another gambit for Borthwick to perhaps adopt for Rugby World Cup is getting a referee involved. Nigel Owens is hesitant about getting involved with the Springboks as a refereeing consultant as it would mean months in the southern hemisphere away from his Welsh farm home, so why not poach him for England?

English discipline wasn’t generally an issue over the course of the championship as they only conceded 47 penalties – a tally second best only to Ireland on 44. However, there were numerous references in the Dublin aftermath as to how the 13-7 round five penalty count against them became a result-influencing issue in a match that ended with them down to 13 men.

Time then for England to be proactive and head off this potential issue in France by getting an outside refereeing expert on board now rather than potentially risk cursing their luck after the event, as was the situation in Dublin when they came off worse against ref Jaco Peyper and his style of officiating.

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5 Comments
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BigMaul 456 days ago

Of course the media don’t like Borthwick. He’s far too pragmatic. They want flashy showy nonsense to give them easy headlines.

I think most fans would much rather Borthwick keep his cards close to his chest, than spout complete nonsense like Jones used to. I certainly would.

Maybe rugby writers should start doing some actual real journalism. And ask insightful questions. Instead of asking the same questions over and over again.

S
Steve 458 days ago

Less five takeaways and more five opportunities to bash England and Steve Borthwick!
Yes the results have been poor, he has used the excuse of his predecessor but how many attack coaches did Eddie go through up to his sacking? The lack of continuity in that alone would make it difficult.
Everyone in the press called for Smith to be given a chance, often alongside Farrell then when it doesn't work it was obvious it was the wrong combination?
How about some positivity and less looking for a reason to stab the head coach in the back? Borthwick has gone from a refreshing change to giving nothing away like Eddie in the space of a few months, is it any wonder he doesn't want to engage with the press if this is how you react?

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Flankly 459 days ago

Quite right about inheritance.

Irrespective of anything that went before, Borthwick has access to enormous player depth, a great supporting competition, free choice between some excellent local assistant coaches, and, due to his previous involvement, a deep personal knowledge of the players game plans, opponents and EJ philosophies. And anyway, this is a team that was an RWC finalist in 2019, with many of the players still available.

It is never good form to blame predecessors. But in this case it is especially inelegant. England does not have the coaching continuity that other teams have, but Borthwick has a lot to work with. Own your results, make adjustments, and move on.

A
Andrew 459 days ago

"Rugby is an entertainment business" It's a lot more than that to those of us who have lived it, loved it, played it and built everlasting friendships, learnt teamwork, trust, fellowship and values. Your commentary is devoid of these things and a shallow self serving reaction to people passionate about our game.

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Flankly 4 hours ago
Resilient Irish will test Springboks despite provincial setbacks

The Bok kryptonite is complacency. How did they lose to Japan in 2015, or to Italy in 2016? There are plenty of less dramatic examples. They often boil down to the Boks dialing back their focus and intensity, presuming they can win with less than 100% commitment. This can be true of most teams, but there is a reason that the Boks are prone to it. It boils down to the Bok game plan being predicated on intensity. The game plan works because of the relentless and suffocating pressure that they apply. They don’t allow the opponent to control the game, and they pounce on any mistake. It works fantastically, but it is extremely demanding on the Bok players to pull it off. And the problem is that it stops working if you execute at anything less than full throttle. Complacency kills the Boks because it can lead to them playing at 97% and getting embarrassed. So the Bulls/Leinster result is dangerous. It’s exactly what is needed to introduce that hint of over-confidence. Rassie needs to remind the team of the RWC pool game, and of the fact that Ireland have won 8 of the 12 games between the teams in the last 20 years. And of course the Leinster result also means that Ireland have a point to prove. Comments like “a club team beating a test team” will be pasted on the changing room walls. They will be out to prove that the result of the RWC game truly reflects the pecking order between the teams. The Boks can win these games, but, as always, they need to avoid the kryptonite.

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