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FEATURE Ben Kay: 'England go in as favourites, but only on paper, not on form'

Ben Kay: 'England go in as favourites, but only on paper, not on form'
8 months ago

So, Steve Borthwick has rolled the dice and selected Marcus Smith at 15 and Owen Farrell at 10, at the expense of George Ford and Freddie Steward. It’s a bold, bold call, but one that he obviously feels he has to make.

Like his mentor Eddie Jones, there will be an element of picking a team to beat the opposition. I remember Jones saying ‘I got it wrong’ after the Rugby World Cup final in 2019 because he went with Ford and Farrell for the Final, when his ‘gut’ told him the pairing suited the New Zealand semi-final, but not the final against the Springboks. For 2023, read the Fiji game, where the aerial game isn’t quite as important. In swapping Smith for Steward, I can understand that selection. Smith has handled high balls and swept up at the back to date, but if he was playing South Africa, I’d wager he might want Steward on the pitch to defuse the bombs. It’s horses for courses.

The midfield combination is important too. If he’d gone for two playmakers in Ford and Smith, he’d want Lawrence and Tuilagi there to protect them with their size and power. With Faz, who is a big bloke, it’s not quite as important, so he’s gone for Tuilagi and Marchant.

As for what else Farrell brings, well he is England’s captain, their totem, and the players love him. I know opposition fans don’t take to him, but it’s often the same with (Dan) Biggar and (Johnny) Sexton. They get criticism when a result goes against them because they are aggressive competitors who wear their hearts on their sleeve during the game.

Owen Farrell Marcus Smith
Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith have been trusted as the dual playmakers for the game against Fiji (Photo Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Admittedly he’s not back to his best after suspension, but having two playmakers is England’s best shot at getting some sort of attacking fluency because what they’re doing at the moment is simply not working. In essence, they’re trying to play a game where they’re capitalising on other people’s mistakes but they’re executing so poorly that you get situations like the Samoa game, where the Pacific Islanders should have won it. They had two contentious tries disallowed, and against more clinical opposition, England would have lost.

This selection reminds me of the old Einstein quote, ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results’. Borthwick might still revert to what he was doing, but in switching things up, he may happen across a combination which sparks England into life and Smith is the back playing with the most confidence right now. In attacking positions, he can step in as a first receiver on the blindside, so you have a playmaker on both sides. For all their explosive backs, the worry is how good Fiji are on the deck. They compete for everything, with Botia at the forefront, so the ability to get quick ball and create something becomes difficult. Borthwick looks like he wants to manipulate some more time for a playmaker. Ford has had to operate with really slow ball so far and he always looks more effective when he’s got time to execute those pinpoint cross-kicks. Farrell almost becomes the conduit to playing a little bit more expansively.

England need to be saying, and I don’t mean to be blunt, but ‘we’re the playground bullies, not the players getting bullied on the gainline’. That has to be a confidence issue.

The backline gets a lot of scrutiny, but they aren’t the only ones who haven’t been functioning. The forwards have been playing this one-off runner game. They’re not winning collisions, not winning metres in contact. Indeed, when England have made metres through contact they’ve created opportunities, but they’ve been inconsistent. They started confidently against Samoa with little tip-on passes, but it tailed off as the game went away from them.

They just look a bit underpowered up front. They are trying to play like South Africa, but they don’t have their power. George Martin is a good carrier, David Ribbans is too, but we haven’t seen much of him, and Ollie Chessum is a rangy athlete in the wider channels. Then there’s Maro (Itoje), who is not, currently, the force he was. We need some of our big players to step up. Think of what Ellis Genge did four years ago against the USA, or even last year knocking Michael Hooper on his backside last summer in Australia. England need to be saying, and I don’t mean to be blunt, but ‘we’re the playground bullies, not the players getting bullied on the gainline’. That has to be a confidence issue.

Jonathan Taumateine
Samoa were the better team against England as Steve Borthwick’s men nicked a win (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

As for their opposition, Fiji have nothing to fear. They’ve achieved their ambition of reaching the knockouts and will now have some fun with the pressure off. You saw how much better their performances were against Australia and Wales as underdogs, but when they were favourites against Portugal, they froze in headlights. Fiji will continue to thrive on the Test stage because their offloading comes so naturally and with the height of tackles lowering, they are able to free their hands and keep the ball alive, moving at speed and shifting it away from contact. England do go in as favourites, but only on paper, not on form.

Personally, I am surprised it’s taken this long to bed-in the style of play Borthwick is trying to implement. The gameplan he had success with at Leicester isn’t working right now but that forcing opposition teams into errors is contrived for the knock-out games so the proof in the pudding. It’s about what happens next. That’s why South Africa do so well in knockout rugby because they force you into mistakes, but they have the pace and talent to tear you apart, before reverting to type. England’s problem in aping this style of play is they are so hesitant. When they get an opportunity, they lack a bit of belief. On the field they’re trying not to make mistakes, so a knock-on in contact feels like a disaster, whereas Fiji are comfortable making mistakes because they play a more high-risk, high-reward game. If you go out trying to be error-free, you’re easy to play against, as England have found to their detriment. That ‘play it safe’ attitude is contagious.

Believe me, I know what it’s like. It was exactly the same in 2007. We were backs to the wall and we played our best game against Australia in Marseille.

I’ve not heard of any disharmony in camp, but it must be frustrating for the players because whatever they’re trying to achieve isn’t really working. As a former player, it’s no good saying everything is coming together in training, you need to feel and see it on the pitch. At a World Cup, where the pressure is constant and you’re being put in front of the media constantly, it comes to a point where you’re almost trying to talk yourselves into form.

Believe me, I know what it’s like. It was exactly the same in 2007. We were backs to the wall and we played our best game against Australia in Marseille. The pressure is on England and if things start going wrong, they’ll  pick up on the groans from the fans. If that happens, it will lift the Fijians and French locals in the crowd.

Ellis Genge
England need to work their biggest ball carriers into the game to get some front-foot ball (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

So, who will win? I can see Fiji giving them a big scare, but statistically, the numbers men are predicting an England win and I agree. It doesn’t bear thinking about if they lost. It would be a huge, huge blow to the game in England and I genuinely believe there would have to be changes off the back of it. I’m not sure if that would come at head coach, because Steve Borthwick can rightfully say, ‘I haven’t had long enough to turn things round’, but the status-quo couldn’t remain and the RFU council will be wanting a reaction so it can’t happen again.

It’s funny, I remember saying a couple of years, after we reached the final in 2007, that it was probably the worst thing that could have happened to English rugby because in essence, we got away with it. People were saying, ‘oh, everything’s alright then’. We even won BBC Sport Personality Team of the Year!’ Now I’m not saying I have all the answers, but the worry is they reach the last four, the powers-that-be deem it acceptable and plod on. Put it this way, they don’t want to be in a position where they’re changing the management team eight months out from a World Cup again, do they? They have to get it right.


Bob Marler 247 days ago

England are going home.

Bob Marler 247 days ago

Favorites. In England.

Nearly lost to Samoa. What form is that? Shit form.

Brunhildes 247 days ago

On form too. Fiji lost to Portugal and Wales, and squeaked past Georgia - we've won every game.

finn 247 days ago

england are favourites on paper and on form

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