Game-changing Smith and three other England talking points post-Chile
It was a job soundly done for a change by England in Lille on Saturday. Eleven tries scored, zero points conceded, and a number of performances that should, if team selection is an open rather than a shut case, allow for some genuine debate over who should start when they next play again on October 7 against Samoa back at Stade Pierre Mauroy.
Here, RugbyPass sifts through some talking points from their generous win over Chile, the lowest-ranked team at the Rugby World Cup:
Game changers need cherishing, not benching
If you were to pick an England back three on form for the pool finale in two weekends’ time, the names of 15. Marcus Smith, 14. Freddie Steward and 11. Henry Arundell would be inked. Smith and Arundell were lovely on the eye and linked well to carve open the Chileans – and that solo try of Smith’s from his halfway kick and chase on the blow of half-time was worthy of inclusion on any France 2023 highlights reel.
Well, put yourself in the minds of the opposition for a second. The Pumas and the Japanese would have looked at both Elliot Daly and Jonny May, the starters on the wing on the opening two World Cup weekends, and figured they wouldn’t be much of a threat because of England’s too narrow attack and ugly kick-dominated approach. In contrast, the pace of Smith and Arundell would have scared them.
Now, the counterargument is that if Smith and Arundell were chosen as September 9 and 17 starters, they wouldn’t have got the type of ball they received versus Chile. That’s very true but the thing is that both players have an ability to create something out of nothing.
That is something that Borthwick should cherish if England are to become genuine title contenders rather than their current status as a limited team that everyone expects to easily get turned over as soon as they meet one of the big four from Pools A and B in the semi-finals.
Even at that, there would be no huge sense of confidence about them going into a quarter-final against one of Wales, Fiji or Australia. Game-changing players are priceless at a World Cup and that is the level of ability Smith and Arundell both have.
As for those who feel Freddie Steward can only feature at full-back, he produced a tidy, try-scoring display away to France in March 2022 when Eddie Jones went with George Furbank as his Guinness Six Nations No15.
Sadly, despite everything written above, it would be no surprise at all if Borthwick came along on October 6, his next team selection date, and went 15. Steward, 14. May and 11 Daly. He’s that sort of a stubborn my-way-or-the-highway type of operator.
The three 10s verdict
England scoring 11 tries suggests it was an all-running performance, except it wasn’t as they still kicked 25 times from the hand. An encouraging uplift, though, was how they regathered nine, essentially 36 per cent of the kicks, and this was how Smith and Arundell both scored one of their tries, kicking through the Chilean cover and winning the race to the bouncing ball.
Last Sunday’s stat in Nice versus Japan was 42 kicks and 11 regathered. Six England starting players kicked against Chile, Owen Farrell seven times, Smith five, Danny Care three, Daly three, Arundell two and Max Malins two, so there was more of an even spread compared to George Ford (18) and Alex Mitchell (14) kicking a whopping 32 times against Japan.
That blunt-force tactic upset the England fans and was loudly booed with that game’s result still in the balance before the freak Courtney Lawes try proved decisive.
There was much made in the aftermath about England having three 10s on the pitch for the closing 30 minutes in Lille. Borthwick suggested: “To have Owen, George and Marcus on the pitch brought another dimension. It certainly gives options for the future.”
Curiously, though, Farrell played down the significance of three 10s playing at the same time. “It’s already been made out into something it’s probably not,” he deflected.
“It’s a whole team effort. For a team to score tries out wide, everybody has got a job to do and I’m talking about all 15. You’re picking out three players in the 15, it doesn’t work like that.”
For the record, England scored just four tries of their 11 tries in their three 10s 30-minute period, enduring a lull where their play became disjointed before a late flourish massaged the scoreboard. So did the tactic work? Not really. If it did, Chile would have been ripped asunder in that final half-hour. They weren’t.
Leggy Billy isn’t working
England selection isn’t an exact science. Look at how Mitchell, the scrum-half who couldn’t even make it into the end-of-June training squad for the World Cup, is now the No1 scrum-half having leaped ahead of Care and Ben Youngs in the pecking order after the injury to Jack van Poortvliet.
What to make, though, of Billy Vunipola and his ongoing issues with form. His inclusion as the sole specialist No8 in the World Cup squad was more a case of the inconsistent Alex Dombrandt playing himself out of the equation rather than Vunipola starring in matches and forcing his way in. After all, Vunipola didn’t play a single minute of the Six Nations as Dombrandt was Borthwick’s repeat favourite pick.
It was August 7 when things changed utterly, Vunipola getting named in the squad and Dombrandt axed but despite Borthwick insisting at the time he had never seen Vunipola as fit, what has materialled on the pitch since hasn’t borne this out.
Of course, his two-game ban for his red-carded headshot on Ireland’s Andrew Porter last month hasn’t helped, but Chile were an opposition there for the taking and Vunipola didn’t grab his chance to shine.
There were just 22 metres made from five carries, numbers eclipsed by three other forwards – Lewis Ludlam 46/6, Jack Willis 31/7 and Theo Dan 28/8 – while Ben Earl, who replaced the leggy-looking Vunipola for the closing 13 minutes, hoovered up 36 metres from his five carries. That’s impact, unlike what Vunipola did.
There were also just four tackles on the other side of the ball, leaving him ranked as the joint lowest of the eight-strong starting pack. When you add in last Sunday’s relatively anonymous 29 minutes off the bench versus Japan, the assessment has to be that Vunipola is one of the most disappointing England players at the World Cup and shouldn’t start versus Samoa.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 24, 2023
Curious undisciplined second-half
Borthwick has been at pains this past month in insisting that England are not an undisciplined team. He took heat about the team shipping three red cards in four games, culminating in the gone-in-less-than-three-minutes Tom Curry contribution against Argentina. The thing is, the head coach has a valid point when the cards are removed from the assessment.
Having come into the tournament conceding six, 12, 12, and 10 penalties in their Summer Nations Series matches versus Wales, Wales (again), Ireland, and Fiji, England conceded just seven penalties against the Pumas, six versus Japan, and were on course to fare even better against Chile as just two penalties had been conceded when the half-time whistle blew with them 31-0 ahead.
Some things went awry, though, in the second period. England scored more than in the second half, adding 40 points courtesy of a half-dozen more tries, but they had nine penalties and endured a lull where just a single try was scored in a 19-minute period with the bench changes coming in from the sidelines.
So who were the culprits? If the stats providers have their work done correctly, the sub props Joe Marler (one) and Will Stuart (two) accounted for three penalties, with sub scrum-half Youngs at fault for another. That’s four.
Borthwick was adamant post-game that he would try and get to the bottom of whatever issues that materialised. He needs to. A double-figure penalty count repeat in the tournament next month will spell doom for England’s chances.