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The Clive Woodward verdict on Borthwick's first England squad

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

It has been such a busy rugby week that we have only finally gotten around now to what Clive Woodward made of the first England squad named by Steve Borthwick. It was Monday morning at Twickenham when the new head coach announced the squad of 36 that will assemble at Pennyhill Park from next Monday for a five-day training camp, and it was the following day when 2003 World Cup winner Woodward shared his thoughts in his latest Sportsmail column.

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His reaction? Believing that the England play had become far too slow in recent times, Woodward was thrilled that Borthwick included players with pace that Jones would allegedly have never picked. The ex-national team coach also gave his seal of approval for the recall of veteran prop Dan Cole more than three years after he was last capped, while he also applauded the confirmation of Owen Farrell as team skipper.

There was even a word about Jones being appointed as the Australia coach, Woodward warning that if the Wallabies knock England out of the World Cup later this year that the blame will fall at the door of RFU CEO Bill Sweeney.

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First, though, the issue of speed. “This first squad selection of England’s new era under Steve Borthwick proves not only that he wants to pick a team with pace, but also promises a stark contrast to the Eddie Jones era,” began Woodward.

“Jones would never have named the likes of Ollie Hassell-Collins and Ben Earl for the Six Nations, as Borthwick did. Under the Australian, England became far too slow from one to 15. To win a World Cup, England can’t rely on brute power alone. They are not South Africa. There must be a speed and dynamism to the players who are selected.

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“England’s overall approach and gameplan needed to change radically, which is why I’m so pleased by Borthwick’s selection. It is very positive… It means I’m hugely excited about the Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland in the first round of the Six Nations. That would not have been the case if Jones had still been in charge.”

Referenced the Cole recall, he said: “I don’t mind that at all. It shows age is no barrier and that form is rewarded.” Then came his affirmation of skipper Farrell. “Borthwick’s decision to make Owen Farrell captain is the right one and I would absolutely have him starting at No10 during the Six Nations. He must begin the Scotland game there.”

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That said, there was criticism of the disciplinary process that enabled Farrell to scratch the final week of his current ban by successfully attending tackle school. “Rugby’s disciplinary process is making the game look ridiculous… Rugby needs to find real clarity and get away from the idea that bans can be reduced by taking a tackling course, admitting guilt, or having good previous behaviour. It’s embarrassing.”

The final word went on Jones and the Wallabies. “Australia have made a seriously big call by going back to Jones. The decision made me smile because Jones’ return to the international arena does add extra spice to what is already a huge World Cup year.

“England were right to get rid of Jones, but if he comes back to haunt them then big questions will still be asked of the RFU and chief executive Bill Sweeney. There will be finger-pointing if England get knocked out of the tournament by Jones’ Australia. If that happens, Sweeney would be very exposed.”

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Flankly 2 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

If rugby wants to remain interesting in the AI era then it will need to work on changing the rules. AI will reduce the tactical advantage of smart game plans, will neutralize primary attacking weapons, and will move rugby from a being a game of inches to a game of millimetres. It will be about sheer athleticism and technique,about avoiding mistakes, and about referees. Many fans will find that boring. The answer is to add creative degrees of freedom to the game. The 50-22 is an example. But we can have fun inventing others, like the right to add more players for X minutes per game, or the equivalent of the 2-point conversion in American football, the ability to call a 12-player scrum, etc. Not saying these are great ideas, but making the point that the more of these alternatives you allow, the less AI will be able to lock down high-probability strategies. This is not because AI does not have the compute power, but because it has more choices and has less data, or less-specific data. That will take time and debate, but big, positive and immediate impact could be in the area of ref/TMO assistance. The technology is easily good enough today to detect forward passes, not-straight lineouts, offside at breakdown/scrum/lineout, obstruction, early/late tackles, and a lot of other things. WR should be ultra aggressive in doing this, as it will really help in an area in which the game is really struggling. In the long run there needs to be substantial creativity applied to the rules. Without that AI (along with all of the pro innovations) will turn rugby into a bash fest.

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