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The resurrection of Dan Cole and three other England talking points

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Gaspafotos/MB Media/Getty Images)

It’s now or never on Saturday night for Steve Borthwick and struggling England. For nine months, the repeated rhetoric from the rookie Test-level head coach has been that he had a crap inheritance from Eddie Jones, that he was developing a restorative game plan, and that a winning blend wasn’t far away.

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Sadly, it hasn’t stacked up. Six wounding losses in nine outings – five defeats in the last six – is a testament to the foot-in-mouth lack of progress where it really matters, out on the field.

England have been a right old missed-tackle mess in conceding 30 tries in 2023. Their blunt attack has also been a brutal spectacle, while their inexperienced Test rugby coaching staff haven’t yet demonstrated that they are collectively capable of thriving at international level.

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With recent results painfully going down the pan, Borthwick has bet the house on England beating Argentina at the start of this Rugby World Cup and everything that has previously happened getting instantly forgotten.

He’s right. A single 80 minutes can eclipse the unconvincing 720 that have gone before as the stakes are remarkably high in Marseille. Win and England have pool momentum and every chance of making the semi-finals on the weaker side of the draw.

Team Form

Last 5 Games

2
Wins
2
2
Streak
1
11
Tries Scored
11
26
Points Difference
-36
1/5
First Try
0/5
1/5
First Points
1/5
0/5
Race To 10 Points
0/5

Lose, though, and Borthwick will be facing the unthinkable – a defeat to Japan in Nice on September 17 and World Cup elimination just two games into their four-match group schedule.

Having been with the squad every step of the way so far at France 2023, starting out with the week at base camp in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage followed by the trip south on Thursday, RugbyPass sets the scene for a fixture that England can’t stuff up:

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The unlikely resurrection of Dan Cole
The last thing anyone would have predicted four years ago at the wounding end of the last World Cup was that Dan Cole would be the England No3 for the start of this latest campaign. He was reduced to a sweaty, crumpled lump by the Springboks scrum in Yokohama, a figure of fun for all the wrong reasons, and it resulted in three wilderness years under Jones where he was overlooked with his Test career seemingly finished.

Not so. Having coached him at Leicester in that time, Borthwick recalled Cole at the start of this year after he succeeded Jones and now, incredibly, after six non-descript appearances off the bench, the 36-year-old has followed up his start in the warm-up loss to Fiji a fortnight ago with selection to start against the Pumas.

England have had their scrum inconsistencies recently. For example, look at how they went from winning three penalties and grabbing nine first-half points in Cardiff at the start of August to that picture completely changing in the second half and the penalty decisions going the other way.

Asked by RugbyPass the other day at Le Touquet if he had a point to prove at Stade Velodrome given his last World Cup appearance was such a nightmare, Cole claimed: “No, no. I am happy to be in the squad, I’m here to help the squad be the best that we can be.

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“What has happened has happened. I have spent long enough thinking about it and moved on. I am more interested in what is about to happen than what has gone before.”

He is correct; it is all about the here and now. However, if he fails to suitably steel the pack against the Pumas, Cole’s selection ahead of the benched Will Stuart and the excluded Kyle Sinckler (who missed some training during the week) will become a stick to beat Borthwick with.

Sinfield’s reputation is on the line
Kevin Sinfield is a lovely, lovely man. Right now, though, he is in an unenviable position with England having leaked 30 tries in nine matches on his watch as their rookie Test-level defence coach – that’s a try on average every 24 minutes, which isn’t acceptable if you want to be successful in international rugby coaching.

The Leeds Rhinos playing legend at least has the right sort of people pumping his tyres at the minute. Sinfield revealed last Tuesday that Phil Larder, the ex-league coach who was in charge of the England defence when the 2003 Rugby World Cup was won, has regularly been in his ear to such an extent that he even warned him about the negativity of the UK media.

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Larder, judging by what he has been saying to Sinfield, hasn’t forgotten his critical treatment over the leaky defence that saw England bomb out of the 1999 World Cup at the quarter-final stage. Four years later, he had helped Woodward and co conquer the world.

It’s an encouraging lesson for Sinfield to bite into, that things can get hugely better if you smartly persevere and use adversity in the right way. Right now, though, there is no evidence that England have the capability to properly shut the door on Argentina.

They had the cards excuse when conceding three tries to both Wales and Ireland last month, but there was no numerical imbalance straw to clutch when also conceding three tries to Fiji last time out and how they failed to exit and then defended poorly at 22-23 with the result in the balance was terrible, England going on to lose 22-30. That sloppiness just can’t be repeated.

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Mitchell quip doesn’t sound inspiring
A remark by Alex Mitchell at his eve-of-match media briefing at the Velodrome piqued the interest as it highlighted how playing for England currently is all about a dull collective structure rather than you being allowed to be the player that you instinctively are from the start.

England’s creativity has been blunt all year, from Nick Evans’ temporary involvement to the summer arrival of Richard Wigglesworth. It just hasn’t happened for them in attack. However, rather than let the shackles off and stop England from being so, so predictable, it appears that no matter who gets a shirt it’s about sticking to the rugby-by-numbers plan rather than having a cut.

Asked what he is hoping to bring on Saturday night, Mitchell replied: “Just for me I have just got to try and control the game, get the team to tick and when I can put some energy and tempo into the side I will try and do that. But again, it’s stick to the game plan.”

Sticking to the game plan hasn’t got England anywhere in 2023 and although Mitchell is set for just the second start of his fledgling Test career inside a fortnight, the message is that even though he has a canny knack at club level of breaking defences with sniping runs, that approach is proscribed with England and the instruction is to instead either pass the ball to George Ford or to repeatedly box-kick it away. That doesn’t sound inspiring.

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The very different selection from 10 months ago
There are good omens to be found for England if they search hard enough. For instance, the last time Saturday’s referee Mathieu Raynal was in charge of Borthwick’s side, they defeated Wales in Cardiff last February in the Guinness Six Nations and only conceded six penalties to Wales’ nine. Twelve years ago, as well, England beat the Pumas 13-9 in Dunedin when the countries previously clashed at the start of a Rugby World Cup.

However, a very different type of stat highlights that this is very much the Borthwick show and that he can’t keep on blaming Jones for the lingering rot. It was last November when England were beaten 29-30 by Argentina at Twickenham, a match that the then-Leicester boss watched at home just weeks before he was to become Jones’ successor.

Just five of that Autumn Nations Series match day 23 – Freddie Steward, Manu Tuilagi, Ellis Genge, Maro Itoje and Tom Curry – are on the teamsheet for this Stade Velodrome rematch, so blaming inheritance will no longer wash.

This is Borthwick’s England and he is in dire need of a result to radically change the optics of his underwhelming tenure.

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Comments

2 Comments
T
Trevor 313 days ago

Lessons have been learnt. Lessons will be learned. Borewick will see positives and fullbacks who can't defend will become the new tactic....

B
BeeJay 313 days ago

England will win easily tonight. Don't forget today is National Pigs Might Fly Day - honest!

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Jon 1 hours ago
British & Irish Lions free agent open to Super Rugby switch

There are a couple of teams who could use a stop gap experienced head. Blues - I’m not sure the Blues have signed a replacement for Caleb Tangitau (if he hasn’t been let go to make room for Barrett) yet, or whether Reiko is going on sabbatical and/or will remain in the squad. With exciting young French player Xavi Taele looking destined for higher honors in black, talented breakthrough rookie Cory Evan’s, and a couple of utilities, in AJ Lam and Bryce Heem(even Clarke?), all trying to learn the midfield trade, Williams could be a great aid. The Blues signed key English center Joe Marchant before he was raised to that level, and were possibly in the hunt to bring back the dependable Tele’a from the Highlanders. Possible the main squeeze which would put to bed any signing here would be the battle at 10 with Beauden’s return, and the forcing of Plummer back into the midfield. Hurricanes - Jordie Barrett is off to Leinster for a sabbatical next year but the more likely signing would be Billy’s brother back in the team. The Hurricanes are light on the outside with the loss of Salesi Rayasi to the Top 14 and if no quality is found to back up Kini Naholo, the midfield of Sullivan or Proctors could find themselves on the wing and space for a leader to show the Hurricanes three All Black midfield hopefuls (Higgins, Proctor, Umaga-Jensen) how its done. Highlanders - Rotation is high as usual at the Highlanders and versatility remains a strength with a lot of the squad. With compatriot Rhys Patchell signing a move to the JRLO, the passing of outside back Connor Garden-Bachop, and confirmed departure of Argentine wing Martin Bogado, the versatility of many of the young backups in the squad could see a veteran 12 like Williams being a strong partner for the robust Tele’a. With hope that the other Umaga-Jensen brother can force him out of the starting lineup, and shifting the sides general Sam Gilbert back into 10, the off-contract midfielder might seen as the perfect option for a squad still looking to fill one back spot.

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