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The failed Vunipola ploy and three other abject England talking points

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It’s not getting any easier for England with less than three weeks to go now before their Rugby World Cup opener versus Argentina in Marseille. Their attack remains blunt, their inability to keep 15 players on the pitch is unwavering, and the impression persists that some players are coasting on reputations rather than justifying selection on form.


It all sounds like quite a terrible mess and under normal circumstances, Steve Borthwick would be pilloried and rightly so. Luckily for him then that with these World Cup warm-up matches, anything negative that happens in August can be rapidly forgotten if September wins materialise.

That’s the reputation-saving transformation the unconvincing head coach is banking on and that’s why the temptation to go all out and negatively judge this Summer Nations Series needs to be handbraked. And yet, some things just can’t go unsaid right now.

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Andy Farrell blasts the disgusting treatment of his son

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Andy Farrell blasts the disgusting treatment of his son

Rugby is an entertainment business and Borthwick’s England are brutally dull. Wincing nonsense such as the likes of Ben Earl over-celebrating an Irish error – which was a continuation of the antics Clive Woodward branded as “childish” last weekend – isn’t going to win admirers.

Neither will the coach’s repetitive uninspired public pronouncements nor the repeatedly poor general level of play being produced from Saturday to Saturday.

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Avg. Points Scored
Avg. Points Scored

It has turned into the worst preparation in England World Cup history, giving fans little if any reason to genuinely believe it will be alright on opening night at Stade Velodrome.

Here, RugbyPass sifts through some of the latest prosecution evidence from the 10-29 loss to Ireland in Dublin:


This Billy V ploy has failed miserably
Who’d be an England No8? First, Alex Dombrandt gets to make six straight starts in the shirt without ever convincing, ultimately playing his way out of the World Cup squad. And now there is the riddle of the misfiring Billy Vunipola.

Ignore for a moment his red card for head-shotting Andrew Porter. Before that reprimanded collision took place, he had been playing like he was running in quicksand – evidence at odds with coach Borthwick’s suggestion earlier this month that Vunipola has never been fitter than he is now.

He isn’t and aside from looking leggy, that mini first-half spell where two penalty concessions in quick succession were followed by his loudly jeered knock-on gaffe encapsulated his general ineffectiveness.

Vunipola isn’t the answer for a struggling team struggling to catch a break, not when he is looking to go to ground on the carry as soon as contact looms rather than inspiringly blasting through it or having the zip to squeeze through a gap.


Could his potential suspension now be a blessing in disguise in that either Tom Curry or Earl could better fill the eight role and potentially generate more go-forward jazz with an approach that isn’t solely dependent on bruising physicality?

We’ll hopefully see next weekend versus Fiji with Vunipola set for a ban unless legal counsel Richard Smith can work wonders again at a disciplinary hearing. This No8 positional malaise has endured all through 2023 on Borthwick’s watch. It can’t be allowed to get any worse.


The lesson that is Peter O’Mahony
Borthwick was at pains in insisting that it was a tight battle while it was 15-v-15 in Dublin and yet a review of the game’s opening try, when the numbers were evenly balanced, illustrated so much about the difference orbits that Ireland and England occupy.

Irish flanker Peter O’Mahony went years without ever carrying ball at Test level; he was never encouraged to seek it out and wouldn’t have had a reputation for any silky handling either. That was until Andy Farrell took charge and ultimatums were given: either upskill and get on the ball or forget about it; you’re toast.

O’Mahony heeded the warning, familiarised himself with the nuances of attacking with the ball and has become fully rounded and undroppable in the meantime.

The line he ran to take a pop off Josh van der Flier, who attracted two low-tackling defenders in Maro Itoje and Ellis Genge rather than one high and the other low, was sublime and having busted a gut in sprinting from the 10-metre line to the 22, he then had the composure to bring on a defender and execute the perfect assist to usher in Bundee Aki.

Can an England forward produce a moment of brilliance like that? The jury is very much out given the persistent adherence to structure rather than play what unfolds in front of you, which is what happened in this O’Mahony instance.

Will Stuart, by the way, was the player left defensively exposed by England’s double tackle on van der Flier that didn’t prevent the offload.

While he trotted back, taken out of the game defensively in the blink of an eye, opposing tighthead Tadhg Furlong was the first player to reach Aki to congratulate him. That’s gas that a brittle confidence England simply don’t have in their locker at the minute.

Points Flow Chart

Ireland win +19
Time in lead
Mins in lead
% Of Game In Lead
Possession Last 10 min
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Kick, kick and kick again…
England have an unflinching reputation under Borthwick as a team that kicks and kicks and kicks, the type of approach where an air traffic controller would be more use to them than any specialist rugby coach. The irony is that it was Ireland who kicked most at the Aviva Stadium, doing so from the hand on 32 occasions compared to England’s 27.

So why the negativity about English boot to ball? The painful issue is the lack of properly contestable kicks, the sort with the perfect sort of length and hang time to give England players the best chance to get up and win the ball back in the air. They’re simply just kicking the ball away.

Add to the mix the rigidness of this England approach, that the only way to ever move the ball from in their own half is seemingly to have their nine and 10 boot it skywards. Surely there has to be some scope to put the ball through the hands and see if a breakout can be created by running the ball.

As it is, England are too predictable, too easy to figure out – and that’s before they even cross the halfway line where they are supposed to then have a bundle of plays to unleash. They don’t and it’s no surprise they have now lost five from eight in 2023, managing a miserly four tries in their last five games.

Contrast that famine to all five of Ireland’s tries coming from their backs, three off delicious wide passes to their wings and another from a winger kicking to a midfielder stationed by the touchline. Total rugby in anyone’s language, except England coach Borthwick.


Bite the bullet and drop Itoje
It might sound heresy but Itoje should be given the drop to see if that last resort can jolt him through the gears and finally start delivering those standout world-class performances of yesteryear when he was a proper star. We have suggested before he should be hooked; his effort last March against the French deserved to get bad selection news the week after.

It didn’t as England were down a lock that week, Ollie Chessum dislocating his ankle on the training ground. With Chessum now back in the mix, go and jilt Itoje next Saturday versus Fiji. He isn’t consistently producing the James Ryan-like goods, clearing breakdowns to delicious effect and all the rest of that necessary engine room grunt work. Instead, Itoje was rather anonymous, a luxury pick.

There is surely a Chessum partnership to be tried with either David Ribbans or George Martin, or what about shifting Courtney Lawes back into lock?

He was rarely ever shabby when positioned there years ago and putting him in the row would free up the blindside to accommodate Lewis Ludlam, one of the few England players to currently have a decent report card this August for his work rate in Cardiff.

And while we are at it, how about a shake-up at hooker? Everyone knows Jamie George what can do and he is certainly a player for the trenches when times are bad. He was second only to Earl on Saturday’s tackle count. But dire England need an attacking overhaul fast.

Why not give the Dan Sheehan-like, more mobile Theo Dan a first Test career start and see if he can he let it rip? Picking the same old favourites who aren’t at the top of their game isn’t getting Borthwick anywhere.


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