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Pedestrian ruck and three other England versus Fiji talking points

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s been quite the week in the south of France, the repeated mantra from the England camp in Aix-en-Provence being how they have moved on and developed as a team from their Summer Nations Series loss seven weeks ago to Fiji at Twickenham.

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There is no argument that improvement has taken place if wins are the sole criteria: a miserly record of just one win in six outings has been transformed into 4Ws on the bounce at the Rugby World Cup.

However, with too many aspects of these English performances still leaving much to be desired, there is no massive pre-game conviction that they are 100 per cent going to eliminate the Fijians and march north on Paris for a semi-final next Saturday against either the hosts France or the defending champions South Africa.

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As brutally demonstrated on the Saturday just gone, with Argentina dumping Wales and New Zealand edging Ireland in a classic, the status of pool winners at this tournament means nothing and essentially England are arriving at Stade Velodrome with a huge target on their back and everything to lose. Here are the RugbyPass talking points ahead of Sunday’s quarter-final:

The uncertain England defence
Defence – or lack of it – was the big takeaway from the August 26 game in London, England conceding three second-half tries and going under on a 22-30 scoreline. That concession brought the leakage under assistant coach Kevin Sinfield to 30 tries in nine matches, on average a try conceded every 24 minutes, but that situation has now changed.

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Just three tries were conceded in their four pool matches, an average of a try every 106 minutes. That sounds marvellous on paper but last weekend’s scrambling in Lille against Samoa was a sharp reminder that this English defence is by no means anywhere near the finished article.

They were a mess in that passage of second-quarter Samoan dominance, conceding two tries and being fortunate not to concede a couple more, and they ultimately needed a last-gasp Danny Care tackle 75 seconds from time to prevent a match-winning try being scored.

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Samoa aren’t an exact replica of Fiji but they are bruisers who slickly move the ball through the hands, so England – who have just a single back (Alex Mitchell) positionally wearing the same number as last weekend – will have their work cut out to stay connected.

Lock Maro Itoje was statistically the biggest culprit in Lille, missing three tackles, but if we wind back to the Fijian warm-up fixture in London, it was out back where the English struggled, scrum-half Mitchell, centre Manu Tuilagi and wing Jonny May all credited with three missed tackles each in the eight-point defeat. Those numbers can’t be repeated.

Borthwick’s penalty can of worms
We liked the classy way Warren Gatland sidestepped the invitation to bag stand-in referee Karl Dickson for the no-sanction decision reached on Saturday in Marseille over the smack to the head his centre Nick Tompkins received with the result still in the melting point.

“It will be interesting to see what happens in terms of the feedback from the panel,” shrugged the Welsh coach at his media briefing in the aftermath of the 17-29 loss. “If he feels that Nick’s dropped his height, he said it wasn’t foul play. I would need to go back and have a look at it, I probably think it’s at least a penalty situation.”

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Contrast that diplomacy at a time of searing disappointment with the can of worms Steve Borthwick dared to open the previous day at his team announcement media briefing. The head coach has characteristically danced a very dull tune at these finals in his media dealings, offering little if any insight into anything that might pique the interest.

However, what he said Friday was a startling reversal of that habit but it also came across as an example of getting your excuses in early. The query was simply whether he received any feedback regarding some of the officiating against Samoa. “Post-game I talked about aspects of the game and would seek clarity and I did, I received clarity,” he said.

Normally, that would be that and the topic would fizzle out. Not on this occasion, the coach continuing with a reference to the “unconscious bias” debate ignited by Samoan coach Seilala Mapusua and then tossing the fireball of the Fijian penalty count into the mix ahead of a quarter-final that will be refereed by Mathieu Raynal.

“I know some statements have been made around tier one, tier two. The situation I have is in the three games Fiji played against England, Australia, Wales in the last few weeks, they have won over 40 penalties, conceded mid-20s (45 to 23 – 10-7 England, 17-9 Wales and 18-7 Australia).

“So from that, you see a team that has a lot of penalties given to them. We have just got to control what we can control in the game and we will do that.”

Basically, it was a very public pre-game shot across the bows of Raynal, putting the official on notice, but it also highlighted the pressure Borthwick must be feeling heading into this quarter-final with an English team that has no certainty about it.

Smith has it all to do after Steward axe
English fans who have been demanding an edge to their blunt attack must be thrilled that Marcus Smith has made the quarter-final starting line-up, but this decision has come at a heavy price for Freddie Steward, arguably the team’s most consistent performer these past two years.

Steward had started 29 of England’s 30 matches from his July 2021 debut through to the Pool D win over Samoa, only sitting out last month’s game against Chile, and it all counted for nothing when it came to Rugby World Cup quarter-final selection.

The Leicester youngster has certainly not been the bluntest England back this tournament – look at how he popped into the line last weekend to take a pass from Joe Marchant on halfway, burst into space, draw a defender and flash a pass to his left to send Tuilagi galloping clear and give the assist to the try-scoring Ollie Chessum.

That was a lovely intervention, but it seems kick chase and defence have cost him. England’s kicking game was off all over the place in Lille and while Steward shouldn’t be faulted for the three-on-one in the lead-up to Samoa’s first try, his positioning was suckered by the crosskick for the second.

Smith has undeniably played well off the bench, but starting at No15 will be a very different ordeal compared to arriving into the fray around the 50-minute mark or later. He will need ball to make his inclusion work and, as seen with Steward, there is no guarantee of this materialising. An intriguing first-half monitor of his involvement awaits.

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Pedestrian ruck can’t continue   
This is an England XV with five changes from the starting team of seven weeks ago – Smith, Elliot Daly and Owen Farrell are in the backs for Steward, Max Malins and George Ford, with Jamie George and Tom Curry in the pack in place of Theo Dan and Jack Willis.

Fiji, for their part, have four different starters, Tevita Ikanivere for Sam Matavesi and Levani Botia for Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta in the pack, with Josua Tuisova for Selestino Ravutaumada, and Vilimoni Botitu for Caleb Muntz in the backs.

Botia has been a major talking point in the build-up, with memories of how he tore Saracens asunder at the Heineken Champions Cup breakdown last April in La Rochelle still vibrant in the memory.

The 34-year-old has been a class act for years and while he can get his impacts wrong – look at last Sunday’s head contact in the tackle yellow card versus Portugal, his strength over the ball at the ruck is a technique masterclass.

A pool phase statistical round-up of all eight quarter-finalists was pretty damning of England’s breakdown. “Clear lack of intent to play and to play wide with only 50 per cent of their rucks more than 10 metres away from the previous ruck, which is the lowest of these quarter-finalists,” read the summary.

England’s pedestrian ruck speed was also ranked the second slowest (4.75seconds) of all quarter-finalists, and they had the second-fewest rucks under two seconds (25 per cent) – statistics both only better than Wales. In other words, they badly need their cleaners to finally turn up this afternoon or elimination is a very real prospect.

  • Click here for a full statistical Rugby World Cup breakdown of England and Fiji 
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13 Comments
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Nigel 276 days ago

Bar the All Blacks, it’s very hard to find better loosies than Curry and Earl.

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