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The boos in Nice and three other post-Japan England talking points

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

England chalked up back-to-back wins for only the second time in the Steve Borthwick era when they eventually got the better of Japan 34-12 on Sunday night in Nice.

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In contrast to the joyous outpouring that accompanied their 14-man underdogs win over Argentina in Marseille, the cheers on this occasion were muted as the English attack failed to impress on an evening they were expected to show improvement. Here are four RugbyPass takeaways:

Ignoring the boos
There was a moment during England’s questions-in-three-languages post-game media briefing where you incredulously felt something had gotten lost in translation.

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There was Steve Borthwick chirping on that he had seen growth in the English attack, a jolting claim that left you feeling he had been at a different match than the one that had just unfolded at Stade de Nice.

So fed up did the large contingent of England fans become with the kick-heavy approach that loud boos were heard around 10 minutes into the second period when possession was thumped away cheaply in a very lame fashion by Alex Mitchell.

22m Entries

Avg. Points Scored
2.5
12
Entries
Avg. Points Scored
1
3
Entries

Why the scrum-half kicked into the Japanese 22 rather than move the ball through the hands around halfway was a mystery given that no England player was within an ass’ roar of contesting for the ball.

It wasn’t the first dominant boo either as the much earlier decision to have George Ford pot at the posts for 3-0 rather than create something from a five-metre penalty also generated some howls of derision.

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We fully get it that England swear by the usefulness of kicking points in cup tie rugby; the clinical way they dismantled Argentina a man short eight days previously was immensely impressive.

However, what people wanted to see against the Japanese was a shaft of hope that they do have more going for them at this tournament than the boot of Ford.

Admittedly, the out-half did deserve some kudos for his persistence, his sweet left-footed kick finding the scoring Freddie Steward with 16 minutes remaining. But a single, beautifully executed moment can’t excuse the general poverty of their creativity.

So intent was Ford in sticking it repeatedly in the air – he kicked from the hand 18 times with Mitchell doing so 14 times – that Manu Tuilagi was denied nourishment to get him into the contest in an encouraging way.

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The centre made just three runs for a 12-metre gain during his 69-minute contribution, a lack of involvement reflective of the game-limiting decision-making going on around him.

The shackles were there for everyone to see so for Borthwick to insist “you have seen growth now in our attack” was far-fetched on an evening when the game’s defining try came courtesy of a headed assist from Joe Marler, a fortunate intervention that definitely wasn’t the result of hours of reps on the training field at their Le Touquet-Paris-Plage base camp.

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The other incredulous line Borthwick spun post-game was “those supporters out there were outstanding, outstanding”. They weren’t, Steve. They were annoyed.

Quite a few had a grievous hump with the boring England way and even after four tries were scored, the comments overheard on the tram back into Nice Ville included some expletives about how their team just wasn’t any good.

It was another worrying example of the disconnect that exists between the bubble world of Borthwick and the England supporters who wanted to see a far more entertaining spectacle and get some bang for their buck here in France.

Latest curious Borthwick stat
Borthwick likes his deflective statistics. Having thrown in the ring on Friday night how the England teams of 2003 and 2007 (cup winners and beaten finalists) scored only four tries in their eight fixtures at those finals versus tier-one opposition, he was quick to highlight two nights later that Japan had kicked on 37 occasions from the hand in Nice, a figure that was just five kicks fewer than the 42 England had registered.

Here’s the rub, though. Whereas England’s type of kicking rubbed their fans up the wrong way, what Japan were doing even found an admirer in Borthwick. “The Japan team played what I thought was incredibly smart and orthodox rugby,” he appreciated.

“The use of the attacking kicks, kicks over the ruck, kicks behind the defensive line, I have not seen Japan use it to that extent and I thought they did that tremendously well. It is an immense credit to them and there were a couple of bounces of the ball that we had to fight very hard for. That was a very good Japanese team that is clearly well coached.”

When will people ever be able to say the same thing about Borthwick’s England?

Points Flow Chart

England win +22
Time in lead
69
Mins in lead
1
84%
% Of Game In Lead
1%
71%
Possession Last 10 min
29%
7
Points Last 10 min
0

Over-egging the humidity excuse
Despite all the recent card trouble, England had been at pains to insist they did not have a discipline problem. There were just seven penalties given up against Argentina, a figure that dropped to six versus Japan. Thirteen penalties in two outings is great going, so it’s a thumbs up for their training ground work in this particular area.

Less worthy of merit was the repeated mixed zone excuse put forward for their handling errors. Yes, the near 80 per cent humidity was stultifying, but did no one read the forecast and have the foresight to wet the balls at Le Touquet-Paris-Plage with washing up liquid in water to replicate handling a greasy ball?

Having been in the south of France the previous weekend, deploying methods to handle the Nice conditions should have been on their to-do list. Instead, judging by the post-game player chat, it sounded as if what they encountered caught them unawares.

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What to do with Faz back
The big narrative heading into next weekend versus Chile in Lille will be where will Owen Farrell fit back into the mix following his four-game suspension. His absence enabled Ford, who hadn’t started a match for England since March 2021, to suddenly become the No10 for four consecutive matches, a selection that rammed home how Borthwick no longer fancies Marcus Smith at out-half.

With the way things have gone the past few months, you can see the head coach reviving the World Cup 2019 Eddie Jones tactic of Ford at 10 with a midfield combination of Farrell and Tuilagi. Borthwick observed this bludgeon use at close quarters as a Jones assistant at the last finals and it would be no surprise to see this selection back in favour.

As for Smith, he has shown chutzpah in continuing to use his limited minutes with great enthusiasm. There were 11 in Nice, six more than in Marseille, but his talent is being dreadfully wasted by this repeated lack of use and the fears is it might only be a matter of time before it unfortunately affects his confidence.

He needs more than these little windows of token opportunity as he has so much more to offer. Let him loose on this tournament.

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Comments

7 Comments
M
Mark 309 days ago

Poor coaches, much like poor politicians hide behind statistics.
This is generally because statistics are an easy tool around which to build a narrative that suits your perspective,often in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Blind faith and misplaced loyalty is the last refuge of the intellectually vacuous and morally dishonest.

A
Andrew 309 days ago

6 months ago, I thought England should make the quarter finals. (A new coach appointed 9 months out from a World Cup to fix a misfiring team, let's write this one off but expect winning in 2027)
6 weeks ago, I thought we're not going to win a game.
Now, I dare to dream we're going into the quarters as group winners, to face Fiji (yikes) as runners up to Wales. But this time, England will have confidence and self belief.
Semi finals here we come! Come on England!

S
Stuart 309 days ago

Super lucky to be awarded the first 3-pointer

D
Dingbat 309 days ago

Is that Borthwick writing those comments. England are just stinking up the game hopefully somehow they will not make the KO stages and we can see some proper Rugby, you know the game played by handling the ball not just hoofing it downfield.

S
Steve 309 days ago

What's with the constant bashing of England? Yes there were times when the ball seemed to be needlessly kicked and the attack wasn't very exciting, however in the final 20 I felt the attack did improve, so to say there was no improvement is wrong.
Tuilagi was marked out of the game, every time he got the ball he was swarmed by defenders, why give him the ball only to get tied up behind the gain line? If you really wanted to analyse the game, instead of bashing boring England, you should have said England would of been better off trying to get him running into space in channels wider out.
As for the humidity you make it seem like its only England that are suffering from it, they aren't, there have been countless errors in other games because of it. Unless you have played in it, you really can't replicate it.
England are 2 from 2, improving in many areas and looking good to get to the quarters, are they the finished article? No, can they improve more? Yes, will they have to get get further than the quarter finals? Also yes.
To me this seems to be a piece more about criticising Borthwick, his tactics and the players rather than actually analysing the game itself. Watch some Squidge rugby to see how its done. Japan are not the small speedbump they were 20 years ago when they would easily take 80 points, they are a well drilled, tactically astute and competitive team now, last night was a good win against a good team.

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