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The question Borthwick and co will privately be asking themselves

By Sam Roberts
Steve Borthwick, (R) the England head coach talks to Aled Walters the England strength and conditioning coach during the Summer International match between Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium on August 19, 2023 in Dublin, Dublin. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

As a coach, there are many difficult challenges in international rugby. Selecting a squad is tricky: bringing a number of different players together and getting them to understand and enact a game plan isn’t easy. Also, getting your back room staff together; you’ve gotta get the best out of a lot of different people at the same time; that will be awkward. Dealing with the press? Bothersome. The questioning, the traps, the constant repetition of the same message which keeps enough interest for the watching public, but enough privacy for you to get on with the task at hand.

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And choosing the game plan: what a quest. Do you get your players to adapt to the game plan or do you adapt the game plan to your players? And the intricacies of the game, the different areas, all need mini-game plans. “We do this when this is happening; then that when that starts to take place.” Manoeuvres, responsibilities, strategies, ethoses: gives you a headache just thinking about it.

Steve Borthwick is earning his corn right now. Many would say it was good corn, but he is earning it nonetheless. But when you consider all he has to think about (the above list is not exhaustive and does not represent too accurately the size of the task), you don’t begrudge him the corn he gets.

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But one of the most difficult challenges of being a top international coach is not listed above. It is, in fact, one that very few international coaches consider when starting out and yet, it must be one which crosses the minds of all that find themselves in the spot Borthwick does right now. In fact, I should think that as their heads hit their pillows each night this week, Messrs Borthwick, Wigglesworth, Sinfield and even Walters will be turning this question over and over in their minds. Because when you’re a coach so much is about getting things right; so much is geared into thinking about how you achieve an outcome that you are sure is out there. The most difficult realisation arrives when you come to terms with the fact you’ve got it wrong. What do you do then?

Let’s ask ourselves a question that comes before that last one. Namely, when do you know you’ve got it wrong? How many losses or poor performances do you endure? And I think perhaps the latter of those two is more important. How many games, when the performances and actions of your players do not match what you are expecting, does it take to make you think you’ve got it wrong? Are England there now? Do they need the Fiji game to find out anymore? Surely not.

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Because we can all get things wrong. With perfectly admirable and understandable intentions, we can be incorrect. We think a way of playing this game is going to work, and it doesn’t. It’s not a huge crime. It happens all the time. But I suppose the real problem comes when you don’t change your ideas. You just stubbornly persist far longer than you should with a game plan that, quite frankly, doesn’t work. One of the real challenges of being a coach is not knowing what works, but knowing when things aren’t working and making the right and timely decisions to try a different tack.

What makes it worse is you can’t flip flop. You have to give things a go. You have to commit to a process long enough to see how and if it is possible but then also not overcommit and spend too long trying something that isn’t possible. But how long? These things take time. And perhaps underneath the microscope of a Six Nations and World Cup warm up matches is not the time to have these sorts of experiments. Maybe you get yourself into this sort of position and you’re in too deep. Changing now might be perceived as weakness and as you head on to the grandest of world stages, you need everyone around you to think you’re strong. I can understand how you might just hunker down and see the storm out. You’ve come this far, battled so hard, there’s no point in heading in any other direction than this one. If it kills you, it kills you. At least you’ll have kept your promise. They’ll say you were a man of your word; courageous.

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Borthwick England World Cup Goode verdict
Steve Borthwick (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

But courage and stupidity are first cousins. They feel the same right up to the point that they’re not. Right up to the point where you thought your courage was the thing that was going to set you apart from others, you realise it was actually stupidity.

Because Borthwick’s current game plan isn’t working. But, crucially, his players aren’t broken, they haven’t suddenly become poor and ineffective; the coaching staff are bright and adroit at putting things across, they are all good coaches: the game plan they are trying to stick to doesn’t work. And to continue down this path much longer is stupidity.

The ill discipline being exhibited out on the pitch is a symptom of how that plan isn’t right. These players are frustrated, uncomfortable, pushing too hard. Ireland’s disciplinary record is in stark contrast to England’s and much of that is down to the way the players feel when they are on the pitch. The England players being red and yellow carded are doing so because they aren’t happy playing the way they are being asked to play.

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England’s answer lies in their opposition yesterday. Ireland play out the back as a first option; it lends a freedom to their thought processes, an openness. England seemed to think that going out the back is only an option if there is space. Ireland are the opposite, they only hit a front ball when a front ball is on (Aki’s try which saw Stuart exposed in a channel). Ireland will not kick the ball away as much as Ford did yesterday.

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In fact, I don’t think Ford wants to kick the ball away as much as he did yesterday. He’s a pragmatic ten, sees what is in front of him and makes the right option but, at the moment, he’s following the game plan, frustrated. Saracens play a wonderful brand of winning rugby and with England that isn’t the case. Tucked arms, for me, on show from two of the highest profile Saracens players, represent the frustration and restriction with which a talented group of players are being made to play.

One of the hardest things you can do in international coaching is recognise that you’ve got something wrong and change it. Borthwick is at this crossroads. He definitely has the capability and knowhow to alter his approach and he certainly has the experience out on the field to go with that change. I don’t think it is too late for Borthwick to experience a positive World Cup. The question isn’t really whether he needs to change, it is more if he will do it. The timing of this decision will dictate how well England perform at the Rugby World Cup and ultimately, how much longer he will be coaching them.

It’s that simple: he has to do it and it’s a situation only made more complicated by thinking about it.

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