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Four England talking points after their abject defeat in Scotland

By Liam Heagney
The dejected reaction of Theo Dan, Will Stuart and Joe Marler after Saturday's England loss (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Saturday was a brutal reminder that England remain a second-rate Guinness Six Nations team. Just 17 weeks ago, Steve Borthwick’s squad painted Paris a rosy red complexion after clinching a bronze medal finish at the Rugby World Cup.


What Steve did in a short sprint was incredible,” said Conor O’Shea, the RFU director of high performance, last weekend to RugbyPass. He went on to describe himself as “more than optimistic” about long-term English success based on the amount of young talent coming through the pathway system.

That may well eventually happen, but the feeling on the slow retreat from Edinburgh this weekend is that such giddy progress is years down the line from fruition given the continued limitations in England’s play that were clinically exposed by Scotland.

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The Scots were roundly laughed at following another pool stage World Cup elimination last October, but what transpired at Scottish Gas Murrayfield was a sharp reminder that the France 2023 draw which pitted them against Ireland and South Africa was hugely skewed.

England – who had lost six of their initial nine matches with Borthwick at the helm as Eddie Jones’ successor – hit the jackpot in being able to muddle their way through to the last four before producing a one-off performance that got them within a whisker of beating the Springboks in the rain.


Turnovers Won
Turnovers Lost

Borthwick’s yap in recent weeks was that England were genuinely going places, nurturing growth in their game despite a continued lack of penetration in attack and teething issues with the Felix Jones blitz defence.

His enthusiasm was that three- and two-point wins over Italy and Wales had this ‘new’ England nicely set up to finish higher up the table, but the abject manner of their round three defeat will now have fans fearing a repeat of the old – a fourth Six Nations campaign where just two of their five matches are won.


That would be an unpalatable outcome and a huge dent in the credibility of Borthwick. Only an against-the-odds win over Ireland or France can rescue their spring and see them finish with more wins than losses for the first time since 2020.

That’s a tall order given their meek surrender of a 10-point lead in Scotland in exchange for a nine-point loss. Here are the RugbyPass talking points from this troubling defeat:

Blitz played into canny Scottish hands
It was disconcerting to listen to Borthwick bemoan the lack of cohesion about the England 10/12/13 combination. Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade had been his preferred midfield partnership for most of last year’s Six Nations, so their buddying-up wasn’t a step into the unknown.

Putting them in tandem with George Ford admittedly was something unfamiliar but as a 93-cap veteran coming into the fixture, it was hardly a rookie risk that should have backfired so damagingly. “Too many fundamental errors,” bemoaned Borthwick.


Blame the new defensive approach. “It was actually made for him, a blitz defence allows people with good footwork to get behind the defence,” cooed Scottish boss Gregor Townsend about the bludgeoning second-half impact of replacement Cameron Redpath to complement the opening-half damage inflicted by Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones.

There has been so much hype about England recruiting Felix Jones from the Springboks to coach their rearguard in place of Kevin Sinfield. References about a more aggressive line speed were plentiful in recent weeks but the scores on the board so far don’t suggest an upgrade.

Eight tries have been conceded in three matches, one more than the seven given up last February in games against the same opposition – Italy, Wales and Scotland. The England honeymoon has ended quickly for the World Cup-winning Jones.

Ball-fumbling culprits everywhere
Momentum-sapping moments, mostly to do with their deeply wounding tally of 22 turnovers in possession, sucked the life out of error-strewn England. They had just 10 turnovers away in Italy and 13 at home to Wales, so Saturday’s level of flakiness easily jumped out as a damaging weakness.

Danny Care and Lawrence were the biggest culprits, coughing up the ball three times each. Care’s 16th-minute out-on-the-full touchfinder was essentially the beginning of the end for his team’s bright 10-point start. Scotland got on the board just four minutes later, but the No9 and No12 can’t be apportioned too much of the blame.

The reality was that 14 of England’s match day 23 contributed to the total turnover tally. George Furbank’s spill (the axed Freddie Steward doesn’t make galling errors like that) and a lost lineout were pivotal in the concession of Scotland’s second and third tries.

Minding the ball is a skill that must be prioritised or Ireland will have a field day.

‘Losing’ the first half yet again
Borthwick highlighted following the round two win over Wales how England – on his watch – had seemingly become much better at ‘winning’ the second half of matches. That run came a cropper against the Scots, the hosts ‘winning’ the second period 13-8.

This outcome showed that a team just can’t keep going to the well and relying on replacement-boosted comebacks to dig them out of trouble. England’s bench was too easily eclipsed by what the better Scottish cover had to offer.

Perhaps instead of an emphasis on second-half ‘wins’. England should prioritise being in front at the break in these games instead of habitually playing catch-up.

Saturday was the third match this month where Borthwick addressed a half-time dressing room with his team down on the scoreboard. That situation can’t continue if England are to stop being Six Nations also-rans.

Toss Ireland a Feyi-Waboso curveball
It was chilling seeing England getting filleted by Duhan van der Merwe’s 25-minute try hat-trick. His was the perfect combination of power and pace that just doesn’t seem to get chosen on the English wings these days.

Playing wide isn’t their thing under Borthwick, unless you’re Henry Arundell scoring tries for fun in the facile dismissal of Chile last September at the World Cup.

Arundell, of course, is no longer England-eligible after opting to stay on at Racing 92. The bulked-up Tommy Freeman has been the beneficiary of that development as well as the retirement of Jonny May, whose ability to fashion a try dried up at France 2023 due to the repeated lack of width in Borthwick’s tactics.

With this curbed approach ongoing, Freeman and favourite wing pick Elliot Daly don’t have fear-factor, van der Merwe-like qualities to pose a consistent scoring threat.

England have needed the boot of Ford to account for 39 of their 64 points this past month, so how about Borthwick changing it up the next day versus Ireland by handing rookie Immanuel Feyi-Waboso his first start?

The 21-year-old needed just a short time off the bench at Murrayfield to get on the scoresheet, changing wings to catch Scotland out and register England’s fifth try in 240 championship minutes.

His cameo caught the eye. “I’m not going to pronounce his name but he was a real threat,” commented opposition boss Townsend in the aftermath. Quite the compliment. Borthwick should feel the same way and serve Ireland a curveball.

While he’s at it, the promotion of George Martin to start is also a must if the speed of Ireland’s ruck ball is to be slowed. Just eight per cent of Irish rucks against the Welsh in Dublin took six seconds or longer.

England must mischief-make, the same as they did against South Africa four months ago. The evidence in Scotland, though, was that they are miles off where they need to be.



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