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FEATURE 'Do England really know where they are going?'

'Do England really know where they are going?'
1 month ago

It often astonishes, how very differently the same game can be perceived through two unique pairs of eyes. At the end of England’s five-try, 29-10 defeat by Ireland, England head coach Steve Borthwick was fumbling for the positives in the dark.

“Whilst I’m incredibly disappointed with the result, the players kept fighting,” he said.

“I thought the players that came off the bench added on the pitch.

“Just before half-time at 7-3, we missed some opportunities and turned over ball in the final third, so we weren’t able to put enough pressure on them.

“When it was 15 against 15 it was a tight battle, unfortunately it didn’t stay 15 on 15.”

In the Borthwick narrative, England were playing on roughly level terms with all 30 men on the pitch, but blew opportunities in the Ireland 22. Their performance went up a notch with their replacements coming into the fray after Billy Vunipola’s 51st-minute red card.

The view from the armchair of ex-England World Cup winning head coach Sir Clive Woodward looked so strikingly dissimilar, he might as well have been watching a completely different match. In his column for The Daily Mail he commented: “Once again, England had nothing in their backline play. The difference between them and Ireland behind the scrum was like chalk and cheese.

“England’s line-out did go well. But on almost every occasion, they went for a forward drive.

“You need to do more than that to beat a team like Ireland.

“I sound like a broken record, but England just don’t play with enough pace.

“Unfortunately, their performance against Ireland was pretty dull and uninspiring, and another red card capped off another disappointing encounter.

“I am really not sure where England go from here.”

In one story, England are not far off the pace, and there is the hint of an implication they might have had enough to get over the top of the men in green had they kept a full complement on the pitch. Keep the faith.

In the other, they were not really at the races at all, and there is little or no sense of where further improvement may come from. There is no trust in incremental evolution, it is time for an upheaval, for revolution.

Sir Clive is probably closer to the truth. England have lost their past three matches to Ireland by similar scorelines: 32-18 at Twickenham in the 2022 Six Nations, 29-16 in the same tournament one year later in Dublin, and 29-10 on Saturday. England had a player sent off in all three games and lost the try count 13-2 – in order 4-0, 4-1 and 5-1.

What Ireland can do currently, and what England cannot do, is score tries consistently. They earn more entries into the opposition 22 and are more efficient when they arrive there: five tries from 10 red zone entries at the Aviva, compared to England’s one from six.

But it is more than that. The stats show when they had the ball, Ireland made the second pass on 47% occasions compared to a mere 34% by their opponents, and that represents a huge gulf in ball movement. It is the facility with which Andy Farrell’s men can shift the point of attack from one side of the field to the other while staying in shape, which distinguishes the Grand Slammers from the also-rans.

Ireland set out their stall right from the opening kick return of the game, and they asserted their superiority when the match was still 15 versus 15.

Here is the basic shape after Hugo Keenan’s runs the ball back into midfield. The primary receiver (number 10 Ross Byrne “1”) is sitting behind a forward pod, with right wing Mack Hansen (“2”) joining centres Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose from the right wing to make an extra pair of hands. Meanwhile “3” James Lowe maintains a wide position out on the left sideline.

That same shape, and the willingness to make the second pass and spread the defence out to a touchline, paid dividends in only the eighth minute.


This time Hansen has taken the ball into contact, but Ireland are quite prepared to spread the ball and utilise Lowe out on the extreme left. The money play arrived only one phase later.

What is the effect of using the full width of the field on attack? It stretches out the defence, it highlights individual mismatches and it makes mistakes in line-spacing more likely.

Ireland have isolated the two England props (Ellis Genge and Will Stuart) in a temporary three-on-two versus two Irish back-rowers (Josh van der Flier and Peter O’Mahony) and one back (Aki). As soon as Genge dips to tackle the Ireland number 7, that becomes a two-on-one against probably the slowest defender in the England XV, and Ireland convert the opportunity effortlessly.

The other aspect of keeping the ball when you have it, and of the preparedness to shift it to the edge, is you tend to win the bulk of the penalties. Every two out of three are typically awarded to the attacking side.


There is no overlap, there is nothing ‘on’, but two phases later Ireland were winning a penalty for the failure of England second-row Dave Ribbans to roll away from the tackle, and that meant another empowered entry to the England red zone.

The same outcome derived from Ireland’s desire to make the second pass only four minutes later.

Once again, there is not much space for Hansen to work in down the right, but the hidden stress on the defence appears at the next ruck, with Ben Earl over-reaching on the pilfer before being jack-hammered off his feet by Maro Itoje. Another shrill blast on the whistle, another Ireland attacking line-out deep in the England 22.

The final proof, if any was needed, arrived in the 38th minute.

England read the first play from line-out well, with Joe Marchant jumping out on to the pull-back ball from Aki, but Ireland keep their poise. The hosts are quite content to defend a losing ruck, and still make the second pass and create the break on second phase. They are also happy to spread the ball wide left for the second time in three phases on the following play.

Two wide phases in three became three in four for the score.

The wide shot illustrates just how far adrift the two closest England defenders (number 11 Elliot Daly and number 15 Freddie Steward) are when Ringrose receives the cross-kick from the boot of Hansen. The defence has been stretched well beyond capacity and Ireland’s centre has acres of space in which to pick his spot for the touchdown.

What did England have to offer in return? Here is one typical example, with left wing Daly running an Irish kick back into midfield.


The ball from the ruck is painfully slow and only Ellis Genge is offering as a ball-carrier, with chaos reigning among the backs behind him. Ireland duly counter-rucked strongly enough to prevent any further progress on the next phase.

Ireland has the assurance of a team which knows its own narrative inside out. They know where their journey leads, and now it is just a matter of execution in order to step up, and reach the summit of the game.

But events in Dublin only threw the travails of English rugby into a sharper and more unforgiving light. What is the real story of England? Do they know where they are really going? Who is right and who is wrong, Borthwick or Woodward?

The agonising recent struggles of both Australia and England, whose administrations so unwisely chose to dump the men anointed to lead them to World Cup nirvana only ten months out from the tournament itself, are in the centre of the spotlight now.

Where Eddie Jones loves the attention and has the sheer chutzpah to brush it all off, Borthwick visibly wilts in the white heat of the media crucible. One man melts, another transforms. In less than three weeks, we will find out which journeys are fake and which are real, and the truest stories will be told.


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