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'Painful lesson': The Steve Borthwick verdict on wounding England loss

By Liam Heagney
Jamie George leads off England after their loss to Scotland (Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

England boss Steve Borthwick has described Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations defeat to Scotland as “a painful lesson”. The Scottish Gas Murrayfield visitors flew out of the blocks in Edinburgh, storming into a 10-0 lead just 15 minutes into the round three fixture.

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However, they then defensively wilted, enabling Duhan van der Merwe to grab the try hat-trick that allowed the Scots to close out a well-deserved 21-30 win that will leave England fans fearing the worst when their team hosts Ireland, the defending champions, at Twickenham on March 9.

Multiple handling errors and a lack of cohesion in the 10/12/13 channel manned by George Ford, Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade left England vulnerable to the beating they sustained in Scotland and it put into grave context the supposed steps forward in their recent respective three- and two-point wins over Italy and Wales.

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“It’s very clear that when you make that many handling errors at this level, it’s very difficult to win,” accepted Borthwick when asked to explain what had badly gone wrong against a Scottish team that has now won five and drawn one of the last seven Calcutta Cup encounters.

“Especially against a team of Scotland’s quality. We have got to make sure we respect what a good team Scotland are and the chances they took.

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“Ultimately we made it too easy for them to score in terms of the chances they took but they were very clinical. Huge lesson for our team as we develop. The number of turnovers makes it very difficult to win.”

Was he frustrated by the mess that England became after such a promising start in which George Furbank, who surprisingly took the full-back spot that had belonged to Freddie Steward, pounced with a lead-taking fifth-minute try? “We’d all love progression to be a nice linear path. Ultimately it’s not, especially when you are trying to do it at this level.

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“What you saw at this level is a team that is trying to develop, trying to add layers to the game and made errors today and got punished. Sometimes you get away with it and sometimes you don’t. Against a team like Scotland, you don’t. It’s a big learning experience, it’s a painful lesson.

“As you start to look at it against a Scotland team that has been together a long time, their 10/12/13 [Finn Russell, Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones] has started a dozen Tests together. I think that is the first time our 10/12/13 have started together and it looked like that. It looked like a lack of cohesion in what they did and too many fundamental errors.

“After a defeat, you are always disappointed. After a performance where you don’t think you have maximized your potential, it’s always disappointing.

“It doesn’t matter the result, the scoreboard, in that sense. If you don’t maximise your potential, it’s disappointment and I don’t think the team maximized their potential today.”

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Poorfour 10 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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