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The major England predicament labelled a World Cup ‘death knell’ by analyst

By Josh Raisey
Steve Borthwick, Head Coach of England, speaks with Owen Farrell prior to the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between England and Samoa at Stade Pierre Mauroy on October 07, 2023 in Lille, France. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Having three different midfield combinations in four World Cup matches does not cry out cohesiveness and continuity from England.

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Owen Farrell’s ban for the first two matches of the tournament has made these unique circumstances, but England’s 10-12-13 trio was hardly regarded as the paragon of consistency leading into the World Cup.

Strangely, England actually opted for their most experienced combination against Samoa at the weekend of George Ford, Farrell and Manu Tuilagi. That triumvirate have played almost 50 Tests together, but it was the first time they had got the old band back together under Steve Borthwick, and it showed in a stuttering display. There were flashes of fluidity, but they were fleeting as England faltered to an 18-17 victory.

The problem for Borthwick is that he is surely none the wiser as to what his best midfield combination should be, but it does leave room for debate among fans and pundits. Retired internationals Bernard Jackman and Jamie Roberts, and Fiji scrum-half Niko Matawalu discussed how England should set-up against Fiji in the quarter-finals in Marseille on Sunday on the Official Rugby World Cup podcast this week, and there is a split in opinion.

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Matawalu predicts England to go unchanged against his compatriots, saying: “I think George Ford at 10, 12 I put Owen Farrell and 13 [Manu] Tuilagi. To go physical against Fiji, if they want to win this quarter-final they need a good kicking game and they both have a good kicking game, Farrell and Ford. The physical you have Tuilagi on the side there.”

Roberts conversely thinks England will shift Farrell to fly-half, while Jackman agrees with Matawalu. The Irishman said that the concern is that England are still unsure heading into a World Cup knockout match.

“I think 12 has become the key position,” he said. “If you look at it, Bundee Aki for Ireland, having the ability to be direct and punch holes and get through the defence.

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“I think if England go Ford, Farrell and Tuilagi as 13 that is a compromise. 43 games together in that axis and they are still not sure at the quarter-final stage.”

The greatest concern for England is that this is a department of a team that should not be tinkered with at a World Cup, according to former Australia prop turned analyst Ben Darwin.

The Australian is the co-founder of GAIN LINE Analytics, and explained on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod in 2021 that the 10-12-13 axis is one that must not be subject to experimentation during a World Cup.

“One of the things we find, that is basically suicide, is never introduce a centre in World Cups,” the 28-cap former Wallaby said.

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“Because 10-12-13 is where the most level of understanding is required and you need people playing in position. That has a really positive impact on performance.

“It just seems to be an absolute death knell because there’s a law of diminishing returns.

“It’s the early stages where the problems lie. So whenever you get relationships in early stages is when you get things going catastrophically wrong, and we see that across so many different sports.

While England are not necessarily introducing someone new into the midfield -the options they have at their disposal all have a fair degree of experience with some having a vast amount- they are at the “early stage” of their relationship together.

Of course, Ford-Farrell-Tuilagi are a settled midfield, but they are not under this coaching team and if Saturday is anything to go by, there did not seem to be a great level of understanding between them.

England go into the quarter-finals with their midfield selection still up for debate, and it is certain that there will not be unanimity among the England fandom as to who should start against Fiji. Perhaps South Africa are the only team that find themselves in that position due to recent call-ups to the squad, and that will be a cause for concern for Borthwick.

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Jon 1 days ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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