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Four England talking points after their latest defeat to Wales

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Losing Rugby World Cup warm-up matches isn’t the be-all and end-all. Four years ago, England stank in Cardiff, were held try-less and were beaten 6-13. Ten weeks later, they were magically defeating the All Blacks in Japan to reach the final.

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Steve Borthwick will now hope the same will be true for his England, that Saturday’s second-half capitulation at the Principality won’t matter a whit when it comes to the real deal of getting the latest global show off to a winning start versus Argentina in Marseille on September 9.

Success in that opening pool match at the 2023 tournament is the priority, not friendly match bragging rights at the start of August.

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The Bunker explained in rugby

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The Bunker explained in rugby

The thing is, though, unlike Eddie Jones’ class of 2019 who had a second-place Guinness Six Nations finish earlier that year and were winning more matches than they were losing, getting regularly beaten is a bad Borthwick habit since taking charge last December.

Four defeats in six outings is not the dead cat bounce a struggling sports team usually gets when it suddenly changes head coach.

Team Form

Last 5 Games

0
Wins
2
5
Streak
2
12
Tries Scored
11
-69
Points Difference
26
1/5
First Try
1/5
2/5
First Points
1/5
1/5
Race To 10 Points
0/5

Instead, there is a positive upswing as players are jolted back into life, but these improved results haven’t happened under Borthwick and another friendly loss to the Welsh next weekend in London will only increase the fears that England could flunk in France.

That’s not the most immediate concern, though. Instead, it’s the need for Borthwick and his assistants to have quickly licked their wounds overnight and reached an agreement on the best 33 players for the RWC squad that will be publicly confirmed on Monday at 10am.

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The players were due to privately learn their fate on Sunday morning in Cardiff before travelling home and some will make that journey with a sense of regret that England’s second-half demise prevented them from individually putting their best foot forward for selection. Here are the RugbyPass takeaways from Saturday’s 9-20 loss:

Going early should be beneficial
Picking the RWC squad three weeks before the World Rugby deadline should potentially be to England’s benefit. Rather than continuing to play games this month with an energy-sapping ‘on-trial’ narrative surrounding those fixtures, the jockeying to make the 33 is now going to be over and this should have a galvanising settling effect on performance as the shackling fear of making mistakes and not making the squad will be gone.

Selection for this quadrennial event is always taxing. Unlike with Six Nations etc where a coach can freely chop and change squads week to week, for the World Cup a coach must try to factor in all potential situations when deciding on his 33 before flying out and it will be intriguing what Borthwick comes up with in terms of his fringe.

Some of Joe Marchant’s support lines and George Martin’s industry caught the eye on Saturday, but will that be enough for them to be included? It is also curious that despite a country essentially having four years to build towards a World Cup, the number of new caps that get a look-in in the month before the finals is always a curiosity.

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England had three in Cardiff and the debate Borthwick will have had is whether the inexperience of Tom Pearson, Theo Dan and Tom Willis is worth a punt at the finals instead of backing more experienced players. Each rookie is a lovely player in their own right and inclusion for any of the trio would emphasise that the England squad is never a shut door.

Bringing newcomers to the big event is a risky business, though. Look at how Borthwick made Ollie Hassell-Collins his statement post-Jones, new era pick last February. He managed two caps before dropping back down the pecking order and then managed just a single week of June training before getting cut. What now for Pearson, Dan and Willis? We’ll know for sure on Monday.

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Cut the staff some slack… for now
Amid the recrimination of yet another Test defeat for England, the inexperience of Borthwick’s management can’t be forgotten in these negative assessments of how the team plays. Bar S&C guru Aled Walters, who conditioned the Springboks for their World Cup triumph four years ago, there is a lot of rapid learning of the ropes going on currently in so many facets and it was reflected in the performance in Cardiff.

Look at the vagaries experienced, such as a penalty-winning first-half scrum becoming a penalty-conceding one in the second half. There was also a terribly frustrating free given up when they illegally set a maul after a first-half David Ribbans lineout take near the line after a penalty was sent to touch.

Messy moments indeed, and then there was the worrying lack of bench impact with the game gone from England’s grasp. The thing is, it will take time to road-test the nuances of what these new coaches are trying to implement and it can’t be until after the Argentina match in 34 days’ time that a full assessment can properly be made on their influence.

In the meantime, expect more trial and error from the likes of Richard Wigglesworth and co in the coming weeks versus Wales (again), Ireland and Fiji – and don’t forget either that they can’t be hammered for a handling error count that numbered 23-8 against England on Saturday. Ten knock-ons and 13 bad passes is simple skill execution gone wrong and that comes down to the players, not the coaches.

Points Flow Chart

Wales win +11
Time in lead
34
Mins in lead
25
42%
% Of Game In Lead
31%
14%
Possession Last 10 min
86%
0
Points Last 10 min
0

Points count, not 22 visits
It was curious to hear Borthwick stress at his post-game briefing how England had multiple visits to the Welsh 22 and that having 21 per cent of their overall possession happen in this area of the pitch was somehow a step forward on their Six Nations efforts even though their ultimately try-less display reinforced the opposite – that this England are very blunt and dour on attack and were competently held up by the Welsh defence.

Contrast that to how and where Wales crucially unlocked the English rearguard, especially with the game-defining try from Gareth Davies.

A crosskick on halfway should never be a killer for any defence but it was in Cardiff, Danny Care getting swatted aside by the catching and offloading Aaron Wainwright and then defenders such as Joe Cokanasiga having their hesitancy to commit to a tackle before it got too late very brutally exposed.

In scoring in this way, Wales showed that you didn’t need to be camped in the opposition’s 22 to create a try, that it could instead be sparked from much further out, and it very much weakened the Borthwick ‘we were in their 22 so many times’ spin.

The fact is his England team have now scored just two tries in its last three matches and a paltry total of just 35 points – not even an average of 12 per game. That isn’t a strike rate to put fear into their World Cup opposition.

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Pick Farrell at 10 and end the rotation
The England No10 shirt in Borthwick’s six-match tenure has gone from Smith to Farrell (for two games), back to Smith, then back to Farrell and last Saturday back to Smith again for his third start in the shirt this year and his third defeat in that role.

He showed some moments of first-half promise, particularly when hitting Marchant with passes and giving the initially leggy Alex Dombrandt some incentive to get on the front foot, but frustration was written all over his face when he cheaply knocked on in the Welsh 22 when England chased a response to the Davies try.

It just wasn’t his day and he was gone soon after, giving way to the even more ineffectual George Ford who was getting his first cap since March 2022.

The debate that is now needed is would this struggling England team be best served by just having skipper Farrell in the 10 role, picking him in that position as much as possible the whole way through until the end of the World Cup?

Rotating the jersey appears to be more hindering than helping the England cause.

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Comments

3 Comments
A
Allan 342 days ago

HOWEVER! If England had won, it would have been a totally different article! LOL

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