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Tinkerman Borthwick and three other England semi-final talking points

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Friday night’s action at Stade de France was a timely reminder that England need to bring their A-game against the Springboks or they could wind up on the wrong end of a shellacking.

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The narrative leading up to the Rugby World Cup and all the way through France 2023 was that the draw was horribly lopsided, that the leading Pool A and B teams are at a far higher level than those that competed in Pool C and D.

The All Blacks’ 44-6 hammering of Argentina was the first confirmation that a gulf in class does exist. Will there now be a second instalment, or can England somehow upset the odds and bowl over South Africa? Here are the RugbyPass talking points ahead of Saturday’s World Cup semi-final in Paris:

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‘Tinkerman’ Borthwick
It was 20 years ago when football boss Claudio Ranieri earned himself the ‘Tinkerman’ nickname. Altering his Chelsea team’s line-up from one game to the next was his thing and Steve Borthwick is now very much his rugby equivalent in never naming the same starting England XV.

Now, of course, suspension and injuries have been a contributory factor in this, but the head coach is also a meticulously-sounding, horses-for-courses operator where there is always some huge tactical change influencing selection.

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Just look at what has unfolded on successive weekends this month. Elliot Daly, a starter in all three September World Cup games, was jettisoned against Samoa as Borthwick felt it best to reprise the 10/12/13 combination of George Ford, Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi for the first time since March 2020, a choice that elbowed Joe Marchant out to the wing at Daly’s expense.

Daly’s recall the following weekend versus Fiji was accompanied by the head coach axing Freddie Steward and giving Marcus Smith the England No15 shirt for just the second time in his Test career.

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Now, with Steward restored to the line-up, the tinkering has switched to the pack where starts for Joe Marler and George Martin were a surprise when the semi-final line-up was confirmed on Thursday.

While the 33-year-old Marler is a greatly seasoned player, starts have been a rare occurrence for quite some time. From the 2019 World Cup quarter-final versus Australia through to last weekend’s 2023 quarter-final, the loosehead started in just five of his 22 appearances, but he has now got the jump on Ellis Genge for the No1 shirt.

There is at least assurance for England fans in that they know what they should get from Marler. In contrast, the promotion of rookie Martin from the bench is quite an incredible selection.

Now, he has not replaced a player who fully knows his trade inside out: Ollie Chessum is just a 16-cap 23-year-old still serving an apprenticeship at Test level but the wind was very much in his sails at France 2023. Until this weekend.

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The 22-year-old Martin is 10 months younger than Chessum and comes with less experience as he has just eight caps, with only three of those appearances as a starter.

What’s more, just once has he started in partnership with Maro Itoje, yet Borthwick has seen something that has given him the confidence to roll out the combo of Martin/Itoje versus Franco Mostert/Eben Etzebeth and have Chessum arriving off the bench in ‘Q4’ – along with Genge – with the result still hopefully undecided.

Importance of a good Curry
Multiple questions to England personnel in the lead-up to this semi-final have been about the 2019 final loss to South Africa and whether the issue of ‘revenge’ was somehow egging them along this week. The answers were all the same – that so much has changed in the four years since then.

Even going back 11 months to when the English last played the Springboks is a precarious business. Just nine of Saturday night’s matchday 23 played in that Twickenham fixture, the final outing in the Eddie Jones era, meaning it is hard to compare then and now.

If there is a valid takeaway from that 13-27 Autumn Nations Series defeat it’s that England’s set-piece must be reliable, their penalty count positive and the possession turnover low if they are going to go toe-to-toe with South Africa.

They were just three from seven at the scrum and six from nine at the lineout on their own ball, they conceded 13 penalties and also gave up 14 turnovers, statistics not helped by the early second-half yellow-carding of defensive linchpin Tom Curry a couple of minutes before Etzebeth drove over for a converted try and an uncatchable 24-6 advantage.

Curry is crucial to the cohesion of the English defence. Just look at how important his chart-topping 20 tackles were in last Sunday’s quarter-final win over Fiji, a lung-bursting figure that was four ahead of the next-best Ben Earl on 16. England need their openside to wield this type of exceptional influence again.

No eve-of-match stadium visit… again!
England were denied an eve-of-match stadium visit for the second successive match this week. Last weekend, they staged their captain’s run in Aix-en-Provence on the Saturday morning as Stade Velodrome was off-limits due to that afternoon’s Wales versus Argentina quarter-final.

It was the same again on Friday, that evening’s Argentina versus New Zealand game at Stade de France seeing Borthwick and co hold their run-through at the National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Sports Performance, their training base for semi-final week in Paris.

Now, England’s captain’s run session doesn’t amount to much by way of hectic activity. A lot of on-pitch huddles take place, visualisation and talk-throughs of the various different match scenarios they envisage materialising. Once all that is over, the session rounds off with some practice for the kickers.

There is an argument that not having a stadium visit denies these kickers invaluable familiarisation with the nuances of a stadium, but Owen Farrell has insisted not rocking up to the Stade de France the day before England’s semi-final was no drawback.

After all, he has played there before and last week in Marseille, at a ground he hadn’t previously played at, he was six from eight off the tee for a healthy 17 points to add that lead-taking 72nd-minute drop goal.

“No, it shouldn’t be (an issue). No,” he said when asked was not having a stadium visit an issue. “We had the same case last week and I’d never played there before, Stade Velodrome. It’s no different. Hopefully, the posts are pretty similar.”

What hopefully won’t be similar is the pre-match welcome the England skipper gets. When the quarter-final team was read out on the stadium screen at the Velodrome, he was loudly booed, a reaction that very much goes against the grain of the general English claim that the support they have gotten week to week at the finals has been exceptional.

It hasn’t. Remember,  just five weeks ago the team was loudly jeered after one kick too many in their struggle against Japan in Nice. The reception coach Borthwick gets is also never the most popular either.

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England’s ‘bomb squad’
It was intriguing to listen to Borthwick hype up his bench logic this week, claiming that England would be best served by having the likes of regular starters Genge and Chessum coming on as replacements on this occasion.

The Springboks are masters when it comes to tactical subs, their ‘bomb squad’ ethic coming of age at the last World Cup and it’s been to the fore again in their charge towards a potentially successful title defence.

In contrast, the England era under Borthwick has been a marked period of reticence when it comes to making in-game changes. Look, for instance, at the weird sight of Smith getting only a token 30 seconds – a single play off a scrum – away to Wales last February in the Guinness Six Nations.

Borthwick’s bench use is certainly no ‘bomb squad’ replica. As exhausting as last Sunday’s quarter-final was against Fiji, England finished their 86-minute match with two unused subs in Theo Dan and Ford.

They also only introduced Billy Vunipola as a 74th-minute replacement, the same juncture he was introduced the previous week against Samoa, while Ollie Lawrence’s four runs as a sub have amounted to 12, 11, 22 and 15-minute appearances.

In other words, the head coach has been rather cagey about making subs, so his sudden major emphasis on what he has in reserve is out of step with the way he has marshalled his team in 2023.

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2 Comments
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strachan 245 days ago

Does it matter

A
Alexander 245 days ago

Surely Rassie takes this role?

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