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If England's pack matched Marcus Smith's effort they wouldn't have shipped 50

By Ben Smith
Maro Itoje of England looks dejected after the Guinness Six Nations Rugby match between England and France at Twickenham Stadium on March 11, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

England’s record loss against France should be the end of the line with new coach Steve Borthwick having all the evidence he needs to hit the reset button.

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On paper England should lose to France, powered by a Toulouse and La Rochelle core who are the best in Europe. The French pack is a cut above, full of explosive power and speed that England can only dream of at this point.

But whilst France should be expected to win, they shouldn’t have any right to a record 43-point victory. The listless defensive display showed a rugby side that mentally did not show up.

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The number of England players putting in feeble tackle attempts, lazy running lines and showing a lack of urgency is indicative of a side that has got it all wrong. England are failing miserably in the areas of the game that require no talent.

The try to France openside Charles Ollivon on the stroke of halftime illustrated the multitude of concerns for Borthwick’s side.

His pack disintegrated at the scrum and corkscrewed 180 degrees in the wrong direction. England parted like the red sea for No 8 Gregory Alldritt to gash them up the middle, breaking away to the blind side.

Only Jack Willis, who was originally on the opposite side, opted to pursue the play with any urgency. The rest of the forwards quit on the play having been beaten at the scrum.

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Lewis Ludlam, who should have been patrolling the blind side, was nowhere to be seen. After being spun around to the wrong side, he half-jogged back to watch Ollivon dive over, beaten to the try line by his own locks.

Front rowers Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler, having lost at the scrum, walked back to the posts.

Marcus Smith is a tentative defender in the backfield at times who shies away from contact too much instead of closing time and space.

The England flyhalf had rightly recognised play was going to the blind side and made the effort to get there, the only problem was he was running in the same direction as France.

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Smith backtracked so far by the time he was forced to make a tackle he was no chance of stopping the loose forward right on the try line.

He had no inside cover staying connected with him. Fullback Freddie Steward didn’t want to step up and fill the gap either.

The combination of all of this is what Borthwick has to try and fix.

His side increasingly has no will to fight on, no will to compete until the very last moment.

At the slightest moment of inconvenience, many players are giving up or falling short of giving their best effort. Passive, tentative efforts across the board, deferring to the next man to do the job.

Based on that showing against France, England need a new front row, new second row and a new loose forward unit. As respectfully as possible, the performances being put up do not justify continued selection.

You can put up with execution errors. You can put up with mistakes. You can’t put up with a sluggish work rates and low effort off-the-ball.

The pack continually fail to get around the corner with any urgency and set the line. Many of them walk and sometimes instruct the others to fold over instead of taking ownership themselves.

Lock Thibaud Flament scored France’s second try by smashing his way through a blindside flanker and outside centre standing on their heels because of this. It was just three phases into the sequence and the England pack was gassed.

This was a carry direct off scrumhalf Antoine Dupont that should have been defended by England’s tight five. They didn’t have the hustle to be there.

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The issue is not all Marcus Smith. He may have made his share of errors but at least he did have effort. If the 15 players in white jerseys all matched Smith’s effort they wouldn’t have shipped 50.

The England flyhalf raced back to cover Thomas Ramos’ kick and did his best to save a bad situation in the 72nd minute.

That a try was conceded after a strong counter-ruck by France cannot excuse four forwards failing to muster a first-up tackle on France’s fullback 60 metres back down field.

Leicester Tigers fullback Freddie Steward missed four of his seven tackles during the slaughtering and was beaten for pace on the outside multiple times.

Despite much hype, he is not the best fullback in the world and is increasingly struggling to even be in that conversation. Defence is half the job and Steward wouldn’t mind finding an extra yard of pace to help his.

Max Malins on the wing is a growing defensive liability, going low frequently and dropping off tackles. His effort is high but he can’t bring test level defence, that is the unfortunate reality.

There could be changes made across the board but ultimately there is a leadership void up front, players who lead through actions and show the way.

Not just making a statement tackle and then disappearing, but continual off-the-ball work that set standards high, fighting for every inch, covering space and putting the work in.

It’s not coming from Sinckler, it’s not coming from Genge and it’s not coming from Maro Itoje. These experienced players are just under 30 years of age and should be performing at their peak.

It’s either a fitness issue, injury issue or effort issue. Either way, it leaves Borthwick with limited choices. He must find new players because the alternative is no longer compelling.

You might as well get pasted by 43 points blooding new experience with young men ready to rip in for the chance to play for England.

England can match it with most of their rivals but the gap between them and France, Ireland is a giant chasm. If they want to get back to the top of the pile a re-build is increasingly looking necessary.

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