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The verdict on England after 21 games with Steve Borthwick as boss

By Liam Heagney
England boss Steve Borthwick watches on at last weekend's captain's run in Lyon (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Steve Borthwick wrapped up the 2024 Guinness Six Nations by inadvertently reminding everyone that he hasn’t yet lost his unfortunate capacity to say things that leave him and his England team open to ridicule.

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Having only been beaten by France with a monster last-minute penalty kick from the halfway line in Lyon, he just needed to leave the bright and breezy English performance to speak for itself, not shift the focus from it by uttering something daft.

We weren’t beaten tonight, we just ran out of time,” he insisted when asked at the post-game media briefing to make sense of a classic round five finale that had finished 33-31 in favour of France. It was a bizarre hot take that he was inevitably mocked for, and it was a pity that it ended like that.

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All the chat should have been about an encouraging England renaissance, about how they played ever so well when beating eventual title winners Ireland and coming within a whisker of doing likewise against the French, who just five months ago were widely tipped, as were the Irish, to win the Rugby World Cup.

What the March flourish has done is guarantee the head coach another year in the role without looking over his shoulder. There were fears that the ugly end-of-February collapse in Edinburgh could leave England vulnerable to Irish and French drubbings that would ignite debate over whether Borthwick was the right man for the job.

That inquisition has now been cancelled and it won’t be until this time next year – once the 2025 Six Nations has ended on the back of a three-game summer tour to Japan and New Zealand and a four-game Autumn Nations Series in which New Zealand, Australia and South Africa are due in London – that the issue might be revisited.

By then, the Borthwick hope will be that his ‘new’ team will be settled and consistently producing top-notch performances versus the world’s best and no longer prone to the blunted, limited ambition tactics leaned on way too much throughout 2023 and again this February.

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Having watched in person 20 of the head coach’s 21 Test matches in charge these past 13 months (W12/L9), here are some RugbyPass talking points following the latest England campaign:

Handbrake off
It was February 15, just five days after England had beaten Wales to be two wins from two at the start of the championship for the first time since 2019, when RFU high-performance boss Conor O’Shea delivered a ringing endorsement for head coach Borthwick.

What Steve did in a short sprint was incredible,” said O’Shea when asked by RugbyPass for an assessment of his head coach. “Now we have got an opportunity to look at a cycle where you’re looking at the short term, which is winning today, but bringing through some of this young talent and really building a massively strong England team in the coming years. I’m more than optimistic.”

Despite the subsequent Murrayfield horror, Borthwick finished the 2024 Six Nations with his team trending upwards. Not since 2020 had the English posted more wins than losses in the tournament. And but for Thomas Ramos making good that late, late whopper kick for the French, they would have finished second to Ireland. That’s promising.

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Losing in Edinburgh was the trigger for them to radically change their ways and stop being so dull and boring. Here’s what Sale boss Alex Sanderson said in midweek when asked to explain how the handbrake came off so that his club’s talisman, George Ford, could shine internationally.

“From my understanding, as a team they shifted that attitude and energy by way of how they wanted to attack. They were a relatively predictable team in how they climbed their way up the field through box kicks and the like.

“They wanted to bring variety into the game, get the ball in George’s hands more, and then pick the best space, whether through the hand or off the foot.

“From what I understand George was influential… this is what Manu (Tuilagi) talked about, they just shifted the focus into getting back and being ready to strike. On the back of that, you can pick your option. You can go to foot, you can play through and it just re-energised the team and he [Ford] spearheaded that.”

England created 15 linebreaks in the games against Ireland and France, two teams ranked in the world’s top four, by being more adventurous compared to 13 linebreaks in their games versus the lower-ranked Italy, Wales and Scotland when their tactics were more restrictive and unimaginative.

To put the upswing into further context, England’s 28 linebreaks was the second-best overall in the tournament, up from last year’s sixth-best 16. This is the way they need to continue to play. Fans want to be entertained and they want to have pride in their team, and the atmosphere at Twickenham on March 9 was like old times, with crowd and team as one at the finish in a spine-tingling cacophony of noise. More, please!

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Player turnover
Just nine of the match day 23 that Borthwick selected for his first match in charge versus Scotland in 2022 were involved last week in Lyon which hints at the level of change that has happened since Eddie Jones was handed his P45. Head coach Borthwick has selected 58 different players across his 21 matches – 32 forwards and 26 backs – and it’s interesting to drill down into this turnover.

Four are currently ineligible due to playing in the Top 14 – Henry Arundell, Joe Marchant, David Ribbans and Jack Willis. Owen Farrell is on a Test sabbatical and also set for a club switch to France, while Courtney Lawes, Jonny May, Ben Youngs and Mako Vunipola have retired from the Test game.

Tom Curry, Jonny Hill, Bevan Rodd, Jack van Poortvliet and Anthony Watson have been injured. Then there is an 11-strong group, including the Vunipola brothers and Max Malins, who have fallen out of favour.

Maro Itoje has attracted some criticism for no longer being at the peak of his powers. He was ranked sixth overall for his number of attacking ruck arrivals across the six teams, but only 50.5 per cent of England’s rucks took three seconds or less which left them with the fourth-slowest breakdown.

The excellent George Martin in tandem with the bash merchant Ollie Chessum is the ‘horrible and nasty’ second row partnership we would love to see chosen in New Zealand just to see how it goes, but that could be a reach as Itoje is the most selected player in the Borthwick era, starting 19 of 21 matches.

Next best is current skipper Jamie George (17+1) followed by Freddie Steward (16), Ellis Genge (15+4), Ollie Chessum (15+3), Ben Earl (14+3), Elliot Daly (11+1), Ford (10+6) and Alex Mitchell (10+4).

What has happened to axed Steward in recent weeks should serve as a sharp warning to other regulars to never take their position for granted (remember, Borthwick even dropped Farrell during last year’s Six Nations), but what the appearances list also highlights is that some areas are lacking depth.

Just three tightheads have been capped on Borthwick’s watch – Dan Cole, Kyle Sinckler and Will Stuart – and with Cole turning 37 in May and the out-of-favour Sinckler set to move to France and become ineligible for a recall, it suggests the future cupboard could be bare.

Four hookers have been used but with Jamie Blamire starting just once and Jack Walker making only five bench appearances, the workload has been left mostly to George with Theo Dan, an unused sub in four 2023 matches, only finally upping his minutes in the latter part of the Six Nations. It’s a situation to watch.

England Six Nations verdict
England celebrate beating Ireland, the highlight of their 2024 Guinness Six Nations campaign (Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Debut-makers and comebacks 
Five players made debuts during the 2024 Six Nations and the return for Borthwick was generous. Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and Chandler Cunningham-South definitely have the talent to go on and enjoy lengthy Test careers.

Ethan Roots is also an encouraging work in progress and while Fraser Dingwall had missed tackle issues coping with the Felix Jones blitz defence, he still produced a crucial try in the win over Wales before losing his place. This was gutsy.

That left Fin Smith, of whom we didn’t see enough to make a proper assessment. His time will eventually come, but the 10 jersey is very much the peak form Ford’s to keep at the minute.

Then there were the revivals, previously capped players who enjoyed a redemption in recent months. Head of the class was the bulked-up, more mature Tommy Freeman, who produced a string of fine displays that culminated in that 75th-minute try in France.

He was originally a Jones pick who was left on the shelf last year, but the growth that has also happened with players who were axed by Borthwick after he played them highlights that second chances currently do exist and that is a great situation to be in.

Henry Slade and Sam Underhill went from Rugby World Cup squad rejects to starting all five Six Nations matches, while there was also a bounce back from a third, Alex Dombrandt, who made the bench versus the Irish and French. He didn’t catch the eye with what he did on the pitch but his selection was evidence that doors aren’t bolted shut if you are prepared to suck up demotion and do the remedial work.

Alex Mitchell continued to prove Borthwick wrong for originally axing him for the World Cup, his speed of pass especially important in March, but the biggest example of a player proving the head coach wrong remained Ben Earl, who has now been nominated for the official player of the tournament award.

He’s been gigantic in building on his World Cup emergence after getting turfed out of the squad in February 2023 following two bench appearances. What it collectively shows is that Borthwick is a coach who is willing to make reassessments after a while. It’s a situation that bodes well for Steward 2.0 to fire up a comeback.

Numbers game
End-of-tournament statistics pumped out by the Six Nations make it clear some areas where England have improved since last year and where they must work harder. Here’s a taste of the good and not so good…

A year ago they were ranked fourth best for attacking entries into the 22 but they are now placed second which can be interpreted as a sign of attacking evolution even though they were more guarded with the ball, giving three fewer offloads – 18 – compared to 2023’s 21. In both seasons, England were ranked sixth for their number of offloads.

There was a marginal improvement in the tackle success, rising to 84.2 per cent from 82.9 but still only good enough to be the sixth-best tacklers, and last year’s second-place 18 breakdown steals decreased to a sixth-best 10.

It suggests there are plenty of work-ons for England to consider, which is good. If they can come within a kick of securing second place with so many areas of their game still in need of an uplift, they surely have the potential to improve and challenge for the title next year provided they concoct a winning plan to take down champions Ireland away first up on the 2025 schedule.

England are in a decent spot. In Steve we very much trust for now despite his ability for foot-in-mouth observations as happened in Lyon with his “we weren’t beaten tonight, we just ran out of time” gibberish.

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ENGLAND IN THE 21-GAME BORTHWICK ERA – 58 players used; 26 backs/32 forwards

FULL-BACK (2)Steward: 16 starts (includes 1 on wing); Furbank: 3 starts.

WING (9) – Daly: 11 starts +1 run as sub (includes 1 start at midfield); Malins: 7 starts + 1 run as sub; May: 6 starts; Freeman: 5 starts; Arundell: 4 starts + 2 runs as sub; Watson: 4 starts + 1 run as sub; Hassell-Collins: 2 starts; Feyi-Waboso: 1 start + 2 runs as sub + 1 unused sub; Cokanasiga: 1 start.

MIDFIELD (6)Marchant: 10 starts + 3 runs as sub (includes 1 start on wing); Lawrence: 9 starts + 8 runs as sub; Tuilagi: 9 starts + 1 run as sub; Slade 9 starts + 2 runs as sub; Dingwall: 2 starts; Porter: 1 start.

OUT-HALF (4) – Ford: 10 starts + 6 runs as sub; Farrell: 10 starts + 1 run as sub (includes 2 starts at centre); M Smith: 6 starts + 10 runs as sub (includes 2 starts at full-back); F Smith: 0 starts + 2 runs as sub + 1 unused sub.

SCRUM-HALF (5)Mitchell: 10 starts + 4 runs as sub; van Poortvliet: 6 starts + 1 run as sub; Care: 3 starts + 11 runs as sub; Youngs: 2 starts + 4 runs as sub; Spencer: 0 starts + 1 run as sub.

LOOSEHEAD (5) – Genge: 15 starts + 4 runs as sub; Marler: 5 starts + 9 runs as sub; Rodd: 1 start + 2 runs as sub; M Vunipola: 0 starts + 5 runs as sub; Obano 0 starts + 1 run as sub.

HOOKER (4)George: 17 starts + 1 run as sub; Dan 3 starts + 9 runs as sub + 4 unused sub; Blamire: 1 start, Walker: 0 starts + 5 runs as sub + 2 unused sub.

TIGHTHEAD (3) – Cole: 8 starts + 9 runs as sub; Sinckler 7 starts + 5 runs as sub; Stuart 6 starts + 7 runs as sub.

LOCK (7)Itoje: 19 starts; Chessum: 15 starts + 3 runs as sub (includes 2 starts at blindside); Martin: 6 starts + 5 runs as sub; Ribbans: 4 starts + 3 runs as sub; Isiekwe: 0 starts + 3 runs as sub; Hill: 0 starts + 2 runs as sub; Coles: 0 starts + 2 runs as sub.

FLANKER (10) – Ludlam: 8 starts + 3 runs as sub (includes 1 starts at No8); Lawes: 8 starts + 1 run as sub; J Willis: 6 starts + 2 runs as sub; Underhill: 6 starts; T Curry: 5 starts; Roots: 3 starts + 1 run as sub; B Curry: 1 start + 3 runs as sub; Pearson: 1 start; Cunningham-South: 0 starts + 4 runs as sub; T Willis: 0 starts + 1 run as sub.

NO8 (3)Earl: 14 starts + 3 runs as sub (includes 3 starts at openside); Dombrandt: 6 starts + 2 runs as sub; B Vunipola: 3 starts + 4 runs as sub.

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11 Comments
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PaPaRumple 82 days ago

England played 1 decent game against Ireland and once again the media is full on overhyping a team.

f
finn 82 days ago

2 & 3 are definitely the main areas of concern going forward.

At 2 we have a really great selection of possible squad players (Cowan-Dickie, Blamire, Walker, Dolly, Langdon) but no one who looks ready to step up to the 23 if age catches up with George. It would be nice for Archie Vanes to get a run of premiership starts because he looks great but we don’t have a lot to go off.

At 3, is the plan just to go all in on hoping that Opoku-Fordjour develops as expected? If he does then great, if not then we might really regret letting Sinckler go.

Also worth noting that of the 6 centres who have featured, only Tuilagi is primarily a 12, and he’s obviously on his way out. It is quite surprising to me that Borthwick hasn’t developed more depth here given his good relationship with Dan Kelly. I guess with Seb Atkinson, Ojomoh, & Hartley there are plenty of options for the long term, but we’ll probably be stuck with playing Lawrence out of position for the time being.

M
Michele 82 days ago

I know exactly what he meant in that press conference. He was saying that England kept fighting and were in contention right to the end. It did sound funny, but it annoys me a little how he gets taken up on everything he says, out of context. Am I alone in this?

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Tom 82 days ago

Was a silly decision not to take Slade and Underhill to RWC. Slade to be fair probably didn't fit into the reductive gameplan that England brought to the world cup but I was amazed how quickly everyone forgot that Underhill was one of the top 7s in the world.

A
Andrew 82 days ago

Fortunately true assessments are made on results rather than what is said in a press conference.

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Colin 82 days ago

Hope Bwick took note from this weekend’s matches that Dan offers far more than George, Daly is a 13 (as he was at Wasps) and is better than Slade and Mercer deserves a chance after Dombrandt’s capitulation yesterday along with the rest of the awful Quins team.

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