'Players are allowed to leave Touquet, they don’t go back to England'
Saturday night in the Stade Mauroy tunnel with police outriders on their bikes waiting for the England bus to fully load so they could get on their way, the was an air of giddiness that school was out for summer and Steve Borthwick’s pupils were going to enjoy themselves. Well, for a few days at least.
This is the quirk of France 2023: in order for the minnow teams to have a sufficient break in between games, it was decided to spread the pool matches across five weekends rather than get that 40-match part of the tournament completed in four weekends.
For England, this stagger means an in-competition break where they can now disperse after playing three matches on successive weekends before recommencing training next Thursday at their Le Touquet-Paris-Plage base camp ahead of their October 7 Pool D finale versus Samoa back in Lille.
The squad of the 33 players can’t nip across the Channel for a quick visit home but they can break away from Le Touquet and do what they like wherever in France for a couple of days before reporting back for the business end of the tournament.
It’s a strange dynamic. Normally, these finals are full-on relentless with no time to breathe but this is very different and it will be interesting what the break achieves – does it refresh the players in the way that Borthwick wants or might it stall the momentum that had built with their wins in Marseille, Nice and Lille.
Only time will tell on that front but before he stepped on the bus and headed away into a northern French night that was considerably cooler than the sweaty conditions encountered twice down south, Borthwick filed his term one report card.
“The team has been building into this World Cup in the manner we want to,” he insisted, despite criticism of his team’s playing style which culminated in the awkward situation in Nice where England were loudly booed by a sizeable chunk of their fans who were fed up with the kick-fest that half-backs Alex Mitchell and George Ford had unswervingly embarked on.
“The players have been smart on the pitch, they have found a way against the opponents we have played and the conditions we played in to get the results and the performances we needed through the first three games.
“In each of the games, there have been some difficult scenarios that have been faced. Game one was the conditions and then the sending-off (of Tom Curry) a couple of minutes into the game. You look at the players and the way they handled that was exemplary.
“You look at the second game, again the conditions, the way Japan played, they kicked the ball every one-and-a-half rucks which is not something we have seen Japan do. That is not the way Japan play and what did the guys do? They adapted to it, dealt with it and came out with a bonus point win.
“Today [Saturday] we had 20 minutes of a real resilient Chile team (and the score deadlocked at 0-0) and the players adapted, found a way and then scored those (71) points in 60 minutes. I’m really pleased with how the players are finding situations on the pitch and adapting to them.
“Every game has been different and the way the players have found a way in those games, this is a team that has got a lot of leaders in it, people with a great deal of experience who play smart rugby and what I would be really pleased about is they have brought that. These are players for the big occasion and that is what they have done.
“I’ve been pleased with the progress of the team. I told the team we would be ready for September 9 and we were working towards that first game… There has been an incredible excitement in the squad for the whole time.
“The spirit of the squad has been outstanding since we came into camp and the way the team has been building is exciting. I’m the privileged one who gets to be able to coach these players and I see every day all their hard work.
“There are still areas we need to address; the second half (against Chile) we conceded too many penalties. We’ll address that but right now the important thing is the guys can enjoy their win, enjoy their hard work, have a few days break so that we can come in and we are ready to go against Samoa.”
What is the essence of this break? “There is no training for the next few days. I’ll be using it in preparation for the Samoa game to ensure when training re-commences on Thursday that our preparation is spot on and everything we need to come back here to Lille nine days after that to get the performance we want.
“The players can’t (go home). Players are allowed to leave Touquet, they don’t go back to England. They stay in France, but they are allowed to leave Touquet.”
So what has been achieved by getting all 33 players some game time across the three September matches? “We have fantastic options. What you see is a team that is starting to sharpen, you see a team that is starting to come together and that has always been the plan. These few days of recovery have always been the plan, so I anticipate we will get even sharper going into the next game.
“We will train Thursday, Friday in Le Touquet and then we will start Test week, Sunday night we will have a team meeting as we start Test week going into Samoa. Everything is now geared towards Samoa and I will be using the next few days, as I always do in preparation, to study our next opponent and selection will be part of that.”
The final word goes to what Borthwick expects from Samoa, a pool rival that started with a win over Chile before losing to Argentina last Friday following a World Cup preparation that ended with them giving Ireland a scare in Bayonne.
“I see a Samoa team that came very close to beating Ireland, the No1 team in the world. They played very well in their first game, and against Argentina it was a real arm wrestle.
“You see a physical team, a real experienced team of players that played international rugby for other teams. Two New Zealand internationals; an Australian international on that team.
“They have got a big pack, they have got power in the centres and they have got pace out wide and regardless of who they play at 10, there is a really strong kicking game.
“This is a team that don’t play any rugby in their own half, they don’t play phase in their own half, they kick the ball out of their own half, they kick the ball in the opposition half and they then try and attack the ruck. They are a smart team.”
First, though, time for that England break.
Join free and tell us what you really think!Sign up for free