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Regathered kicks and three other England talking points versus Samoa

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

No one could have confidently predicted it would work out so swimmingly for England so far at this Rugby World Cup, quarter-final qualification and first place in Pool D both secured with a group game to spare.

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Just one win in six coming into the tournament suggested that a struggle was in store at France 2023, but that didn’t materialise and Steve Borthwick’s team now have a no-pressure audition versus Samoa in Lille on Saturday to fine-tune tactics ahead of their October 15 knockout stage match in Marseille – versus most likely Fiji.

Here, RugbyPass takes a look at some talking points as Borthwick and co look to finish out their pool schedule with another victory:

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England DNA
Whereas Borthwick has spent his time ducking and diving across the campaign, avoiding sharing insight and giving fans some edible food for thought about what he is trying to achieve, some England players have been the complete opposite.

Courtney Lawes was an example last Monday, chatting about the DNA of England’s various rival teams before getting put on the spot and being asked to precisely explain what his own team’s DNA is.

Team Form

Last 5 Games

3
Wins
1
1
Streak
3
13
Tries Scored
12
-5
Points Difference
13
2/5
First Try
0/5
2/5
First Points
1/5
1/5
Race To 10 Points
2/5

“We’re a really strong defensive team,” he reckoned. “That is probably our backbone; we have conceded one try in the last three games, so that is great, and obviously an aerial kicking team.

“We are very good at getting the ball back and we’re looking to build attack off that. Hopefully, by the time we get a bit later on in the tournament, that is where we want to be and show people a bit of a different side to us.”

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Lawes was spot on about the defence tightening up, giving up just a single try in three games compared to 30 in their nine matches this year before the finals with Kevin Sinfield new to coaching a Test-level rearguard.

But what about Lawes’ kicking reference and England being “very good” at getting the ball back; what are the numbers for this assumption? Official stats from the games against Argentina, Japan and Chile state that the English have kicked 110 times from the hand, putting 36 into touch, regathering 28, and having three more charged down.

There is no statistical accounting for where the other 43 kicks wound up, but is the regathering of 28 – 30.8 per cent of their kicks – a really positive stat? It very much is, coming in as a tournament-best when a deep dive is done into what most other leading teams have been up to with their kicking from the hand:

France (four games –24.2 per cent regathered): 121 kicks, 20 regathered, 55 to touch, 3 charged down;

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New Zealand (four games – 21.28 per cent regathered): 112 kicks, 19 regathered, 50 to touch, 2 charged down;

Wales (three games – 9 per cent regathered): 75 kicks, 12 regathered, 28 to touch, 2 charged down;

South Africa (four games – 8.1 per cent regathered): 81 kicks, 10 regathered, 53 to touch, 0 charged down;

Ireland (three games – 3.78 per cent regathered): 63 kicks, 6 regathered, 40 to touch, 3 charged down;

Scotland (three games – 1.83 per cent regathered): 61 kicks, 3 regathered, 31 to touch, 3 charged down.

Canny Cole advice
Such is the air of authority that Borthwick wields that there was one awkward moment for skipper Owen Farrell at Thursday evening’s team announcement media briefing. He was asked if he – and not George Ford – would be kicking off the kicking tee versus Samoa and with his coach sitting to his right, the captain booted for touch.

“Yes, we have. Steve decided,” said Farrell without volunteering who exactly would kick. It was instead left for the coach to eventually give the answer, “Owen’s kicking at goal on Saturday.”

Surprisingly, it was veteran prop Dan Cole who gave the best piece of advice when it came to discussing the all-time Jonny Wilkinson England points record that Farrell is on the cusp of breaking. “It would help if the wingers didn’t score in the corner all the time,” he jested.

For the record, Farrell was eight from 11 off the tee the last day in the rout of Chile, three missed conversions denying him the two points needed to surpass the Wilkinson benchmark of 1,179.

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Getting the band back together
It can’t go unsaid that the Borthwick gambit of playing Ford, Farrell and Manu Tuilagi as the 10/12/13 combination was always a trump card likely to come out of the coach’s back pocket the deeper England went in the tournament.

Not since March 2020 versus Wales, the Twickenham afternoon that Tuilagi was red carded late on in the Test match that was the last before the pandemic shutdown was confirmed, have England fielded this particular 10/12/13.

It’s also the first time since March 2021 versus Ireland in Dublin that the 10/12 partnership of Ford and Farrell has started. The selection is very much a throwback to old times, and it has ignited a debate about whether its revival is a good or bad thing.

Fans are going to have to wait until Saturday evening before having some fresh evidence to mull over, but Borthwick is clearly looking for a similar 2019 Rugby World Cup result with this trio now reunited.

They were the starting 10/12/13 versus New Zealand four years ago, a performance that England haven’t matched in any of the games since then.

3-minute Curry
Here’s a crazy stat: Tom Curry has had less than three minutes of Test rugby in the 12 matches that Borthwick has been in charge of England. Two hamstring injuries, one in each leg, kyboshed his entire Guinness Six Nations last spring.

Then came the ankle injury that sidelined him from the Summer Nations Series, a lay-off followed by the third-minute red card versus Argentina last month that left him suspended for the follow-up games against Japan and Chile.

The back-rower now makes his return versus Samoa and his impact will be closely monitored. Defence coach Kevin Sinfield considers Curry a leader in that facet of the game but he wasn’t too keen to talk his man up during the week given what happened in the first week in September after he previously praised him to the hilt.

What can be said is that England have described Curry as training the house down in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, their base camp for the pool stage. The abrasiveness of the Samoans will now definitely test this level of fitness and his energy levels will be important.

With the Billy Vunipola return not having worked out due to a combination of suspension and him looking very leggy getting around the park, England need back-rowers with an engine. Ben Earl explained as much the other day.

“He [Borthwick] wants us as back-rowers to run and you look at the team Leicester were when they won the Premiership (in 2022 under Borthwick), you look at the best performances we have had as England under his regime, it has been when the back row has been at the forefront of the game.”

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