It's time to move on from Owen Farrell
On one hand, with two Six Nations wins from three games, Steve Borthwick’s England reign could be said to have made a half-decent start.
Meanwhile, an alternative view suggests losing at home to Scotland then struggling past Italy and woeful Wales is a slightly underwhelming effort from the world’s best-funded rugby nation.
Having come across Borthwick on a few occasions while he was in charge at Leicester, his approach to handling the media and his open, friendly approach since taking the England job from Eddie Jones has been a pleasant and very welcome surprise.
Reportedly, his behind-the-scenes staff find the former Bath and Saracens lock a likeable figure who has plenty of time for everyone. A sharp contrast therefore with his acerbic predecessor and hopefully a man who can deliver a long-term winning culture rather than the kind of electric shock therapy which brought some short-term success to teams coached by Jones.
There is no doubting that Borthwick has impeccable credentials for the top job courtesy of his brilliantly successful career as player, captain, lineout specialist, coach and more recently at the helm of a Tigers side which he transformed from relegation candidates to English champions almost overnight.
Regardless of how England fare during March or at France 2023, he should therefore be guaranteed a good run in the head coach role. Nonetheless, we also must acknowledge that should England follow the formbook and be well beaten by world no.1 and no.2 sides France and Ireland, they will unacceptably once again finish in the lower reaches of the Six Nations table.
Borthwick’s pointed comments about the side he inherited not being much good at anything are spot on as their travails in the scrum, their lack of power at the breakdown and with ball in hand and their regular disciplinary problems under Jones clearly showed. The new boss certainly has plenty on his ‘to do’ list and only limited match time before the World Cup in which to tackle it.
Judged by their approach against Italy and Wales, England’s priority is to re-establish their pack’s traditional status as one of the world’s most combative outfits with a powerful scrum and lineout and a dynamic driving maul.
To this end, the return of Dan Cole and the selection (and old-style non-substitution of Jamie George) has shored up the setpiece. In addition, the presence of Alex Dombrandt, Lewis Ludlam and Ollie Lawrence has brought a gain-line threat and by putting England more regularly on the front foot shrunk their breakdown penalty count.
England almost won the 1991 World Cup with a forward pack and good kicking game, but a repeat performance is surely now impossible given the nature of the modern game. For example, South Africa’s winning team in Japan certainly had a dominant set of forwards, but also plenty of power and craft in their backline plus a pair of electric wingers.
Should poor results against Ireland and France underline the veracity of this, while Borthwick will redouble his quest to beef up the forward pack he will also need to acknowledge that this will only take England so far.
If they are to challenge the world’s top sides in France next year, England must develop an all-court game which mixes the sledgehammer with the rapier – and it is very difficult to see how this happens with the conservative Owen Farrell calling the shots as fly half and captain.
It can be argued that Jones (and his predecessor Stuart Lancaster) have already acknowledged this through their regular selection of George Ford at no.10 with his Wigan childhood mate outside him.
However, since Billy Vunipola’s effectiveness declined and England belatedly acknowledged that they cannot build a side around the rarely-fit Manu Tuilagi, a ball-carrying presence at inside centre has become essential.
Just as Andre Esterhuizen enabled Marcus Smith to spark Harlequins to the Premiership title, the in-form Ollie Lawrence brings the same qualities to England. This means Farrell plays at fly half or not at all.
With Ford – who led Borthwick’s Leicester to the title 12 months after Smith had done the same for Quins – returning to fitness, the two most creative talents in English rugby will shortly be at their head coach’s disposal.
While recent stats may suggest otherwise, neither is as reliable from the kicking tee under pressure, not as defensively able as Farrell (not withstanding concerns about his rugby league style high shots). Twice in England’s win over Wales their captain was first in over the ball to win a turnover or slow Welsh possession and neither Ford nor Smith bring this appetite or skill set.
But, combined with a powerhouse inside centre and a footballing no.13 such as Elliot Daly or – if he can rediscover form – Henry Slade, both of Borthwick’s alternative options bring attacking flair and an ability to unlock defences by playing flat to the gain-line and putting teammates into space with well-timed sleight of hand.
Most relevantly, both only kick away possession in their opponent’s half as an absolute last resort, instead instinctively preferring to go through the phases with ball in hand. The last World Cup final showed England how long it takes to get possession from tough opponents like South Africa, so keeping it for a while when you have it seems a good idea.
Watching England in recent times, and listening to the hushed tones in which newly-selected younger players express their reverence of Farrell, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that he is the team’s dominant and shaping personality.
With the possible exception of Ford, is there anyone in the backline – and maybe the entire squad – that will challenge him? It may just be that by also making their fly half and senior player captain England have created a less-than-healthy environment with one overly-dominant voice that suffocates those around him.
It may be coincidence, but with Farrell absent through injury, England’s best spell of the last two years brought an impressive series win in Australia last summer under the leadership of the laid-back Courtney Lawes.
Borthwick installed Farrell as captain soon after taking charge, and changing direction this close to a World Cup is not ideal.
The rise of Ludlam, Jack Willis and Ollie Chessum, the return of Ben Earl and the guaranteed presence when fit of Tom Curry means Lawes is not currently a guaranteed starter.
But with his Premiership-winning skipper Ellis Genge very much part of the first XV, Borthwick also knows a replacement leader is close at hand and in the interests of being competitive in France the Farrell situation is a nettle which England’s new boss surely must grasp.
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Hi Nick, as always a very high standard. I am really concerned about our breakdown and D as I see these as indispensable parts of a winning team. I suspect our coaches struggle to motivate the guys to perform consistently and this is compounded when, like the Tahs, there is a 'little to play for' attitude to be got over. What impact are the sports psychiatrists having at top level as I assume this must be their area of specialisation?Go to comments
Holy man, this is a powerful team and more than capable of knocking over Wales 1. Ravai 2. Ikanivere 3. Doge 4. Nasilasila 5. Yato 6. Tamani 7. Botia 8. Mata 9. Lomani 10. Volavola 11. Tuisova 12. Ravouvou 13. Radradra 14. Habosi 15. MasiGo to comments