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Out-of-depth Borthwick and 3 other miserable England talking points

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Like a gambler clutching his last dime at a one-arm bandit in Reno, Steve Borthwick is firmly clinging to his coin – the September 9 Rugby World Cup opener with Argentina – as if it will be the saving grace that will change his life.

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Who knows? Maybe a win in Marseille can suddenly alter everything and set England off on a run to the semi-finals on the far weaker side of the France 2023 draw. Right now, though, the rookie head coach is in the mud and sinking fast ahead of his team’s trip next Thursday to Normandy, their secluded base camp for the pool stages in France.

When you are publicly asked nine months into your downward spiral tenure if additional coaches need to be brought in to remedy the current crisis of an inexperienced staff appearing way out of its depth coaching a greatly muddled team, you have unquestionably lost the room.

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That was what confronted Borthwick on Saturday evening with the dust settling on a fabulous Fijian raid at English rugby HQ. Rather than become the savior to cure the ills of the final years of the Eddie Jones era, the next man up has instead taken England to even murkier depths.

The stats don’t lie. Just three wins in nine outings, three losses at Twickenham, fed-up fans voting with their feet and staying away in huge numbers compared to the jam-packed Twickenham that greeted the All Blacks/Springboks blockbuster on Friday night.

Team Form

Last 5 Games

3
Wins
2
1
Streak
2
13
Tries Scored
12
-5
Points Difference
-1
2/5
First Try
1/5
2/5
First Points
1/5
1/5
Race To 10 Points
3/5

Indeed, there were more people at the stadium when the England women’s team last played there than what turned up to watch the latest Borthwick crash. At least now there are no more excuses, no more god-awful warm-up matches where the coach can duck, dive and deflect away performances nowhere near up to scratch.

It has been the worst ever preparation by an England squad heading to a World Cup, with decent players made to look very ordinary rather than better – which was what Borthwick was supposed to achieve with a relentless preparation that, for numerous players, began 11 long weeks ago on June 12. Here is what RugbyPass made of Saturday’s latest tortuous public flogging:

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Project Borthball an unmitigated disaster
RFU president Rob Briers signed off with this message in his programme notes: “Enjoy the rugby today and for years to come.” No thanks. Project Borthball has so far been an unmitigated disaster and it is incredulous to think that he was given a contract through to 2027 without first getting him to prove that he actually has the capabilities to be a successful Test-level head coach.

Rather than offer a results-dependent, shorter-term deal to initially get the post-Jones show successfully on the road, the RFU have backed themselves into a corner in being so generous with its long-term job security and they have no option now but to stand by their man no matter how terrible the situation could become in the weeks and months ahead.

Right now it’s a debacle and director of performance Conor O’Shea should be all over this mess and be proactive ahead of the finals rather than reactive after the finals with a review that investigates too late the shortcomings of the rookie Borthwick ticket.

If Australia can bring in Steve Hansen for a week to assess their checks and balances, then why can’t  the RFU have someone temporarily dip in with England to ensure that management are coaching to the necessary standard?

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Whereas just four people were listed on the England management pen picture page in the match programme – head coach Borthwick, defence coach Kevin Sinfield, scrum coach Tom Harrison and attack coach and kicking strategy Richard Wigglesworth who have all cozily arrived in from Leicester – there were seven people on the Fiji list from a variety of backgrounds: head coach Simon Raiwalui, attack/backs coach Glen Jackson, forwards coach Graham Dewes, defence coach Daryl Gibson, lineout/maul coach Brad Harris, contact/ruck coach Senirusi Seruvakula and kicking skills coach Seremia Bia.

England, the richest resourced rugby country in the world, outcoached by little old Fiji, who have to constantly mind their pennies. Extraordinary.

Related

Humble Foster lesson for stoic Borthwick
Rugby is an entertainment business, something that the stoic Borthwick just doesn’t seem to grasp. It is his job to convey messages that help to excite the fans, to jazz things up by sharing insights into what is going on and ensuring there is a strong connection between those who part with their hard-earned cash and the stars they come to see perform.

On too many occasions in his post-game media briefing, he cut short his answers with references to answers he gave last Thursday or earlier in the week. This 10-minute post-game session is his moment to shine, to get his message across well and to try and control the narrative.

Friday was a refreshing example of how best to do this. Ian Foster arrived at the same top-table podium that Borthwick occupied less than 24 hours later and he was breezily informative, entertaining and insightful in his comments about what was a record defeat for the All Blacks.

He knew he wasn’t speaking to a room of between 30 to 40 media; he was addressing the four million plus fans back in New Zealand with a clear message not to panic, that if there was a trophy for the All Blacks not to win this year it was the Qatar Cup, and he was also forthright with injuries, intriguingly sharing the details about the blade boot injury suffered by Tyrel Lomax.

In contrast, Borthwick shut down injury queries, shut down questions about confirming his Rugby World Cup 33 and just repeated ad nauseam that his focus was all on September 9. That was simply not a good enough message to convey to fans who had sat through thunderous rain and lightning in south-west London and all those who watched from afar.

The missed tackles blame game
Right, let’s get stuck into the play that unfolded. England seem very much like a team that overcoaches a defect from one week to the other, only for a separate aspect of their play to fall off. Take the attack: Fans have been crying out for tries. There had been just four in the past five matches and none from a back since February.

On Saturday, three arrived just like the buses only for England’s quality without the ball to damningly fall off. Twenty-seven missed tackles was the stat that woundingly undermined them, 15 from the starting backs where Nos9 to 12 were the biggest culprits.

Alex Mitchell was credited with missing three, George Ford two, Jonny May three and Manu Tuilagi three. Across the whole starting XV, only Courtney Lawes didn’t miss a tackle, so this was a collective malfunction.

Now, of course, Fiji and their powerful carrying/electric footwork are a handful for any side to shackle. Defence coach Sinfield mentioned on Friday how he had “really enjoyed previewing them” and how having them in opposition had “brought a deal of excitement to see how far we have come”. Let’s just say the review will be anything but exciting.

What should especially pain England was their behaviour after they scored their two second-half tries. A cheap three points was given away quickly after the Marcus Smith try, and it happened again on the back of the later Joe Marchant try, this time the home team leaking the result-sealing Simione Kuruvoli run-in.

Essentially, this was an England team that twice gifted back the momentum to Fiji in second-half circumstances where they should have been better composed to build on their own scores, not give it all away so cheaply and have to start over.

Ball allergic forwards luxury England can’t afford
Another aspect which Saturday’s 22-30 loss highlighted was how England don’t have enough ball-carrying forwards to share the load. In an era where players are supposed to multi-task to great effect, two of the eight English starters in the back were ball allergic.

Dan Cole and Ollie Chessum, who each played 69 minutes, managed one carry each for the collective gain of a single metre. Their opposite No3 and No5 made 16 metres off 17 carries, not a massive amount but more than enough to show they are an all-court team unlike England who seem to have designated carriers only in a very structured, restricted, boring style of play.

Yes, Cole and Chessum have much to do as breakdown cleaners and all the rest of that grunt, but their lack of an option as ball-carriers lessened the focus for Fiji and made what England tried to do more predictable than it should be.

Also, Ben Earl wasn’t the No8 England needed. At Test level, the player in this role is supposed to be a primary ball carrier. Instead, Earl managed just 19 metres off five carries, numbers easily eclipsed by the 61 metres Bill Mata gobbled up from his 13 carries.

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J
Jon 1 hours ago
Sam Cane was unfairly cast in Richie McCaw's shadow for too long

> McCaw’s durability and sustained excellence were unique, but we seemed to believe his successors were cut from the same cloth. It’s easy to forget McCaw was just as heavily critiqued for the last two years of his career. The only real difference was his captaining criticisms and his playing criticisms happened at different times, where Cane was criticized for a few things in both areas for all of his last 4 years. This was also heavily influenced by another McCaw esque presence, in Ardie Savea, being in the team and pushed out of his original position. It could be said we essentially didn’t have the 3 prior years with Ardie as world player of the year because he was changing into this new role. I say “original” position as despite him never coming out and saying his desire is to perform his role from, that I know of, clearly as part of a partnership with Cane as 7, I don’t think this was because he really wanted Cane’s playing spot. I think it most likely that it comes down to poor All Black management that those sort of debates weren’t put to bed as being needless and irrelevant. It has been brought up many times in past few months of discussions on articles here at RP, that early calls in WC cycles, to say pigeonhole an All Black team into being required to have a physical dynamo on defence at 7 (and ballplyaer at 8 etc) are detrimental. In the end we did not even come up against a team that threw large bodies at us relentlessly, like why we encountered in the 2019 WC semi final, at all in this last WC. Even then they couldn’t see the real weakness was defending against dynamic attacks (which we didn’t want to/couldn’t give 2019 England credit for) like the Twickenham Boks, and Irish and French sides (even 10 minutes of an English onslaught) that plagued our record and aura the last 4 years. It really is a folly that is the All Blacks own creation, and I think it pure luck, and that Cane was also such a quality All Black, that he was also became an integral part of stopping the side from getting run off the park. Not just rampaged. > The hushed tones, the nods of approval, the continued promotion of this nonsense that these men are somehow supernatural beings. I bet this author was one of those criticizing Cane for coming out and speaking his mind in defence of his team that year. Despite the apparent hypocrisy I agree with the sentiment, but I can only see our last captain as going down the same road his two prior captains, Read and McCaw, have gone. I am really for Cane becoming an extra member to each squad this year, June, RC, and November tours, and he is really someone I can see being able to come back into the role after 3 seasons in Japan. As we saw last year, we would have killed for someone of his quality to have been available rather than calling on someone like Blackadder. Just like the Boks did for 2023.

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