England have just lost a game of rugby for the first time in history to a so-called Tier Two nation, Fiji. Whither England now?
Last December, the RFU sacked Eddie Jones, statistically the most successful headcoach in English history. They replaced him with Leicester’s Steve Borthwick, who provided the coaching engine which drove the Tigers to a Premiership title in 2022. It was an oasis of success after a period of famine for the Welford Road club and it propelled Borthwick on to the international stage ahead of his natural time. He was thrown on by force just when he was composing himself for a more poised, organic entry at the start of a new World Cu cycle in 2024.
Nowhere was this truer than in the area of defence at Twickenham. The England ‘D’ is run by rugby league legend Kevin Sinfield, who was Borthwick’s main assistant at Tigers and has subsequently joined him in the national set-up. The piece highlighted an important stat.
“By the end of the 2021-22 regular season, Leicester had conceded the fewest tries in the league (52) at an average of 2.1 per game, and their tackle completion rate stood at 81%, the highest in the Premiership.
“Wind the clock on to the first 14 rounds of the same competition this season, and they are leaking almost four tries per game with only Northampton and Newcastle having conceded more. The tackle completion percentage has also plummeted to below 77%, 11th in the table.”
By the end of the regular 2022-23 season, the average number of tries per game conceded had improved slightly to 3.4, but the tackle completion rate remained low at under 77% (9th out of 10 clubs).
The Tigers D was leaking at the time Borthwick was appointed to the England job, and the picture since he took over has been much the same. Over the course of nine games in 2023, England have shipped 30 tries at the same rate as Leicester (3.4 tries per game).
As the January analysis illustrated, that defensive stress was intrinsically related to the amount of time the Tigers spend without the ball, and the number of kicks they are required to chase in a game. In 2022-23, Leicester were the only club to kick for an average of over 1,000 metres per match, and their average of 35 kicks launched was four more than anyone else in the league.
Unsurprisingly, defence was a major topic of discussion at the England press conference immediately after the game.
“We are bitterly disappointed. Frustrated. We saw growth in some areas, but in other areas [we] dropped off. Ultimately, if you miss that many tackles – fall off that many tackles – against a team such as Fiji, they are going to score tries.
“We knew they were a very dangerous side before, they pushed France very hard last week, and they took their opportunities really well today.
“I think they are going to do very well at the World Cup and there is [a] potential that we may meet them again in a few weeks’ time…
“We gave them too many opportunities and slipped off too many tackles…
“We slipped off a lot of tackles, and they have powerful runners to take the opportunities when they get them”. [Steve Borthwick]
England captain Courtney Lawes, who was sitting beside his head coach throughout proceedings, added shrewdly “We let them get their offload game going and we paid for it.”
Borthwick’s charges predictably kicked 12 times more than Fiji (33 kicks to 21) and had to do most of the defending as a result, completing 150 tackles but missing 27.
The Flying Fijians are particularly expert at gaining metres after first contact at the tackle, and the short-hand for that was the number of defenders beaten by the top three Fijians (outstanding wings Selestino Ravutaumada and Vinaya Habosi and world-class centre Semi Radradra) – 15 to England’s six – and the total offloads made – 13 to England’s three.
One of the issues for England in defence is the split in overall aims. Borthwick has said he is committed (as he was at Leicester) to building the best scrum he can muster. On Saturday that meant a starting spot for the Yoda of English front-row play, Dan Cole. Cole is now 36 years old but he may still be the best pure scrummaging tight-head in the Premiership.
His presence in defence tends to widen the target area for the opposition attack.
The Fijians temporarily enjoy a 6-3 numbers advantage on the short side and Cole is the forward defending beside the first back, left wing Johnny May. It is not ideal and two phases later, Radradra was running over George Ford one-on-one with little help coming from the Tigers prop on his inside:
A similar scenario led to Fiji’s first try (disallowed on review for a forward pass).
Cole starts at the right ‘guard’ spot near the ruck, but as play moves towards the England left he must conscientiously fill in the space underneath the players outside him. However, within a couple of phases a big gap has opened between him and Ollie Chessum after the Leicester lock misses Ravutaumada on the far side of the ruck.
The same principle was at work for Fiji’s second (legitimate) try of the game in the 52nd minute.
England commit to a big shove at the scrum, but Cole has scarcely gotten his head out of the set-piece before he is required to guard the side of the ruck again. His absence leaves an inviting hole for Vinaya Habosi to run through, straight up the vacant middle of the breakdown. What should Borthwick prioritise? Pressure at the scrum, or reliability in defence?
England also had an issue with one-on-one tackles against some of the big Fijian backs. One or two of them, like 6ft 4ins, 105kg centre Waisea Nayacalevu are easily big enough to play in the back five forwards. The battle between May and Ravutaumada on the England left almost amounted to a physical mismatch.
The Fijian right wing rounds his opposite number with no problem at all, then the England scramble defence, via number 10 Ford, fails to fill the offload lane between Fiji’s number 14 and 13 after the break has been made.
The final try of the game, which put the result beyond any doubt at all, was almost a carbon copy.
Another optimistic pass heaved out to the right, more sleight-of-hand by Ravutaumada, and more average England offload defence by Ford near the goal-line. What should Borthwick prioritise? Defensive starch, or subtlety on attack? That was game, set and match to Simon Raiwalui’s men, and it was a victory they fully deserved.
No area of the game truly exists in isolation. Defence is connected to the kicking game, to what the coach wants from his troops at set-piece, and to his aims in attack. It is a point of balance Borthwick is finding impossible to locate at present
If he starts Cole for his scrumming prowess, he has to sacrifice something defensively around the field. If he prefers Ford or Marcus Smith at 10 in attack, he will be surrendering the defensive leadership Owen Farrell brings to the team. Borthwick is being pulled a hundred different ways by a hundred different voices.
He could do worse than apply the old American football maxim that ‘offence wins games, but defence wins championships’ and prioritise Sinfield’s area of expertise before the opening match against Argentina in a fortnight. That was what Dylan Hartley opined on the television commentary, and he is right. Make England hard to beat first. There is not much time for anything else.
The words I wrote back in January unfortunately still apply, eight months later.
“Ford could be the key ‘new face’ – back from a long-term injury but with 84 England caps already under his belt… Only Ford and Farrell have the tactical nous to run the kicking game Borthwick wants, and that may well leave Smith out in the cold – or at best, with splinters in his backside from prolonged periods of bench duty.
“The real questions may be whether the impact of Leicester’s game plan has already fizzled out with constant repetition, and whether England’s opponents in 2023 will be ahead of the game before it ever starts.”
Those opponents are indeed ahead of the game, underpinned by Fiji’s historic triumph. Now it is more a matter of invoking the Churchillian spirit, of shedding every last drop of blood, sweat and tears going. In lieu of true tactical cohesion, that may be all the head coach can promise the men under his command right now.