Andy Goode: The worst build-up to a World Cup England have ever had?
Rugby World Cup preparations for England could scarcely be any worse and their final Summer Nations Series game against Fiji feels far bigger than it should have been.
In theory, it’s still a great opportunity for Steve Borthwick’s men to finally score more than one try in a match for the first time since February and get their attack out of second gear, but the Fijians are as good as they have ever been and it’s starting to look like a major potential banana skin.
England have lost four of their last five Tests, scored just four tries in those outings and done very little to encourage fans to get behind them. Now they have to contend with suspensions for their starting fly-half and number eight and an injury crisis in the back three.
It would be fair to question whether this is the worst build-up to a World Cup England have ever had and most people will be thinking it can’t get any worse at this point, but it can if they lose to a so-called tier-two nation that they have never lost to before.
That wasn’t a scenario in the head of anyone really when this fixture was inked into the calendar as England’s big send-off at Twickenham ahead of the 2023 World Cup, but the hosts are now at their lowest ebb for a long time and Semi Radradra and co will sense an upset.
England simply can’t lose but they also have to put in a display that inspires some kind of confidence ahead of the trip to France, score a few tries and get those fans that are turning up to Twickenham excited.
There are mitigating factors such as the disparity in ticket prices between the two games and a reduced rail service on Saturday, but it isn’t right that England’s home was packed for New Zealand versus South Africa on Friday night but far from it when they host Fiji.
It is a sign of the disconnect between the national team and its supporters. Borthwick has talked a lot about excitement but delivered little thus far, so now is the time to get people out of their seats.
Doubts remain over those two and there could be a major reshuffle in the backs department on Monday if one of them isn’t fit for the tournament or anyone else picks up an injury this weekend.
If it is just Watson who misses out, then it looks like it will be Jonny May to take his place given he is starting against Fiji but I can’t see how Cadan Murley isn’t getting a chance after his form at club level over the past couple of seasons.
Daly would be a big loss if his injury ends up being worse than first feared, obviously because of the quality he possesses and his long-range kicking ability but also because he offers such versatility. You would have to get straight on the phone to Henry Slade if he is out.
The absence of Billy Vunipola means Ben Earl has gone from not being able to get a start for love nor money and coming off the bench in his first 15 caps to starting three Tests in a row and being a first-choice international number eight this weekend.
He has game-breaking ability and I’d be starting him at the back of the scrum in the opening game of the World Cup as well against Argentina on September 9.
Amid all the gloom, it’s great to see Ollie Chessum back starting again after his injury and it’s a special day for Courtney Lawes as he leads the team out on the occasion of his 100th cap. He is going to be hugely important if England are to have any chance of reaching a semi-final or more.
One potential reason for optimism is the midfield combination of Manu Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence getting a runout together. It isn’t ideal that your centres are starting alongside one another for the first time in the last match before a World Cup but they have the capability to strike fear into the hearts of the opposition in France.
Plus, he might not have been in the squad until Jack van Poortvliet’s injury but Alex Mitchell can do things that none of England’s other scrum-halves can in attack, so it’s great to see him getting the chance to start a Test for the first time.
It’s been interesting to hear the talk around Marcus Smith being used at full-back this week. I know he filled in there off the bench against Ireland but I can’t see him wearing the number 15 jersey from the start in a match.
His ability to spot a gap is second to none in this England squad but dealing with high balls isn’t his strength and I can’t see Borthwick starting him there over Freddie Steward. He could come on there late on in games though and it hopefully just shows a bit of a shift in mentality from England’s head coach.
The example of Beauden Barrett playing there for the All Blacks with Richie Mo’unga at fly-half is what people will point to, but Barrett has done it for a while now and is also far more physically suited to the position.
With all the injury and suspension issues, there is no doubt Borthwick would prefer not to have his most difficult pool game against Argentina first up and be able to build into the tournament as Ireland will be able to against Romania and Tonga to a certain extent.
Regardless of the result against the Pumas, though, there is an expectation that England will qualify at least ahead of an improved Samoa outfit and a Japan side that can rise to the big occasion but isn’t at the same level it was for the last couple of World Cups.
Whether that transpires remains to be seen but for now Borthwick doesn’t have a lot of choice but to take things week by week, as boring as that might sound, such have been England’s problems in the build-up to the World Cup.
He will be hoping and praying for no more injuries or disciplinary issues come Saturday night but that can’t enter the mind. The focus needs to be on attack and a performance has to come at some point: let’s hope this one serves as the mood changer England fans all so desperately need.
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