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England have painful lessons to learn from the last four years

By Josh Raisey
Steve Borthwick, Head Coach of England, consoles Jamie George of England following the team's defeat during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between England and South Africa at Stade de France on October 21, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

It’s November 2 2019. Eddie Jones has fielded the youngest ever side in a Rugby World Cup final with an average age of 27 years and 60 days. England lost, but the future looks bright for 2023.

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Fast forward three years and nine months. England are losing to Fiji for the first time ever in the final World Cup warm-up match at Twickenham, and fans are asking ‘how did we get here?’

Fast forward two months. After a fairly lacklustre World Cup, England have led the world champions South Africa for more than 70 minutes in the World Cup semi-final before agonisingly losing 16-15 after a late Handre Pollard penalty. Again, England fans ask ‘how did we get here?’

Video Spacer

England coach Steve Borthwick explains why it is so tough to overcome the Springboks

Video Spacer

England coach Steve Borthwick explains why it is so tough to overcome the Springboks

England head coach Steve Borthwick took solace after the semi-final by looking to the future and was enthused about his youthful side. “That 23,” he said. “Seven players are 25 or under, the most of any semi-finalist, so there’s a great blend and there will be lots of things we can take forward.”

Suddenly, out of the darkness appears a flicker of light in English rugby and new hope.

The circumstances now are very different to what they were four years ago. While Jones said in 2019 that there would be a lot of changes to his squad, he knew the core group would remain the same. After all, only two players from the final squad in 2019 are no longer professional players (George Kruis and Mark Wilson) and every one of the starting XV have been involved with England in 2023 in some capacity, ten of which played against South Africa on Saturday.

Contrast that with the England team that started against the Springboks in Paris, at least seven are unlikely to be involved in four years’ time due to age, let alone form.

But there is a good reason why Borthwick has hope as England’s youngsters shone at the Stade de France. George Martin brought a level of physicality that is usually dished out by the Boks themselves. Air traffic controllers can only dream of dominating the skies in the manner Freddie Steward did in a wet and windy Paris. Not much more needs to be said about England’s standout performer this campaign Ben Earl. All 25 or under.

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So there is reason for England suddenly having that same optimism they had four years ago. The future may not be as bright as other countries who seemingly have a conveyor belt of young talent, but it looks far more hopeful than it did just a matter of weeks ago. The last four years have played out like a horror show though. Getting into the final would have only papered over the cracks of what an omnishambles it has been at times (then again, as far as papering over cracks goes, that’s not a bad way to do it). But why did it go so wrong?

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The encouraging thing for England is there are a few things that happened over the last four years that are unlikely to happen again. Hopefully (the word ‘hopefully’ is about to do some heavy lifting) there will not be another pandemic. That curtailed the progress of almost every international side, but by its nature it obviously happened to everyone.

England’s most successful club of the professional era is also unlikely to be relegated again. This is not a comment as to whether Saracens should or should not have been relegated, it is just the naked truth that it was calamitous for the national team. England’s success has mirrored Saracens’ success over the last decade and sending a large portion of England players to the Championship (though some wisely opted to have a loan season elsewhere or even move) meant they lost form and fitness which has taken them years to recover, if at all.

Finally, hopefully (again) three Gallagher Premiership clubs are not going to go bust in the next four years. Though that did not affect England rugby directly, it is hard to know what kind of disruptive impact that had behind the scenes.

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There are plenty of errors over the last four years that could have been controlled and should serve as a cautionary tale going forward.

Get a settled coaching team
There is set to be a coaching reshuffle in Borthwick’s team after the World Cup with Felix Jones joining from South Africa. That is inevitable after a World Cup and par for the course. But Jones chopped and changed his coaching team so much from 2019 that consistency became an impossibility.

First Scott Wisemantel left after the World Cup. He was soon followed by Borthwick, and he was soon followed by John Mitchell. By the end of Jones’ tenure, the revolving door at Twickenham saw so much action that installing a generator could have solved the global energy crisis.

Contrast that with the top four teams in the world and they had settled coaching teams throughout the cycle, barring one mass overhaul by the All Blacks in 2022. Continuity of message is key.

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Win back Twickenham
The atmosphere at Twickenham over the last four years has been flat and the crowd disinterested, which is surely a by-product of the uninteresting rugby being played. After dazzling the rugby world in 2019 with a furious tempo, Jones bizarrely opted to revert back to the most pedestrian style of rugby conceivable for the next three years, creating an atmosphere at HQ that made a dentist’s waiting room look like a rave in comparison. Borthwick decided to continue with that as the best avenue to win a World Cup in spite of the flack it received in some parts, as former France flanker Olivier Magne labelled it “prehistoric”.

Russell Crowe’s Maximus in Gladiator is told to ‘win the crowd, and you will win your freedom.’ Freedom in this case for the England head coach is not getting sacked after years of turgid rugby. Positive rugby and losing is tolerated by a crowed, negative rugby and winning is too, but negative rugby and losing is catastrophic. England do not need to start playing like Fiji Sevens, but there is a huge amount of middle ground between that and what has been played over the last four years.

Forget about World Cups
Jones was brought in as a World Cup specialist, and he had a record to back that up (up until this World Cup). But his focus was so parochial and fixed on that one quadrennial eight week window that it almost seemed that he was not bothered as to what happened in the intervening time.

His reputation of pulling it off when it gets to World Cups (as he did in 2019 after a poor 2018) allowed him to limp through his second cycle. But results were not suggesting that he could pull it off in 2023, and the longer that narrative continued to be spun, the further England stagnated and drifted from the top teams in the world.

Jones would frequently put a World Cup-centric spin on any loss, about how defeat would benefit them come France 2023, all while failing to make any progress. While there is an adage in sport ‘you don’t lose, you win or you learn,’ England were not doing much winning, and it did not seem like they were doing much learning either.

The only thing that was effectively keeping Jones in a job was the hope that maybe he could produce a miracle out of nowhere in France. By the time the RFU accepted that World Cup glory was unlikely under the Australian, a ‘top four powerhouse’ had emerged and were almost out of sight. Maybe the RFU feel vindicated now with Borthwick’s performance compared to Jones’s with the Wallabies, but it is hardly the blueprint for how any union should plan for a World Cup.

While World Cups are important, focusing on the here and now rather than some abstract thing years away may solve a lot of problems England have recently had.

Fixture
Rugby World Cup
Argentina
23 - 26
Full-time
England
All Stats and Data

Replicate that passion
England showed in fits and starts what they were capable betwee 2019 and today, but those performances usually came amid a string of listless displays- a 23-20 win over a rampant France in 2021, a win over the Springboks later that year, a spirited effort against Ireland after losing a player after 82 seconds in 2022 and a late flourish to draw with the All Blacks in 2022. The very fact that England only won 50 percent of those matches is perhaps the best indication of how the World Cup cycle went.

Now it must be hard to frequently reach the febrile state the players reached for the Springboks encounter at the weekend, but they managed to whip the Stade de France into a frenzy with the passion they played with. Their spirit was infectious, and it would be impossible for the English public to remain apathetic if they brought that energy every time they ran onto the pitch.

Match Summary

4
Penalty Goals
3
0
Tries
1
0
Conversions
1
1
Drop Goals
0
83
Carries
69
0
Line Breaks
3
14
Turnovers Lost
17
8
Turnovers Won
4

Cement combinations
Look at every World Cup winning side and there are usually easily recognisable and established combinations across the field, with the centre combination often being the most cemented. From Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith to Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am to Mike Tindall and Will Greenwood, almost every World Cup winning side had an established centre partnership, typically with an extra player that is comfortable slipping in as well. It is not exclusively World Cup winning sides though. Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll, and Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies are just as iconic partnerships.

England not only did not have a settled centre partnership heading into the World Cup, but they did not have one come the quarter-finals in truth. This helps explain why there was no attacking fluidity. If Borthwick wants to arrest that, he needs to settle on some combinations early in this next World Cup cycle and build on them.

Develop an identity
The point that nicely ties every other together is that England need to develop an identity, and quickly. It has been reiterated throughout this World Cup that the attack is the hardest part to get functioning with a team, and having only had nine months with the squad, Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield have prioritised the fundamentals of the game rather than any kind of intricacy. Now there is no longer the pressure of a World Cup looming over him, Borthwick can start to think about developing England’s identity from the kick-heavy machine that it has been. He should now be afforded the time to do so by England fans.

South Africa, New Zealand, France, Ireland and Scotland all have a clear way in which they want to play, and while it was not necessarily easy for all of them to build that identity, they have reached their stylistic goals. Though it could be argued that England do have an identity, it is not one anyone envies, and while the process of change may be hard, it has to be done.

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Poorfour 4 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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