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FEATURE 'England are in a Rugby World Cup prison of their own making'

'England are in a Rugby World Cup prison of their own making'
9 months ago

The title sequence of the iconic BBC comedy series Porridge, starring Ronnie Barker, always started with a view of the gloomy front gate outside HM Prison Slade. The heavy, tessellated wooden doors were accompanied by the thud of a gavel and the judge’s penal sentence, and there was little sense of the humour to come.

The real-life location for that front gate was St Alban’s Registry Office, previously a 19th century Victorian jailhouse but now hosting marriage services. It is hard to ignore the irony. Selection and planning for England’s forthcoming Rugby World Cup campaign has a similar flavour, even some of the same names.

The most creative midfielder in the English Premiership, the eponymous Henry Slade, has been dropped from Steve Borthwick’s squad entirely, and there is no representation from the Exeter Chiefs club at all. This, even though the Chiefs reached the semi-final of the European Champions Cup, losing to eventual champions La Rochelle.

The Chiefs play the most definitive ball-control game in the league, finishing top of the charts in the 2022-2023 regular season for overall ball-in-play time (39.5 minutes), highest average time-in-possession (21.7 minutes) and most average rucks built per game (115 – fifteen more than the next club).

Slade is an integral part of their attacking formula, and he is also the best left-sided playmaker in England by a country mile. He can pass off his left hand long or short, and he can kick to prodigious length off his left boot. The only naturally left-sided back remaining in the England squad is Elliot Daly of Saracens, and if he features anywhere, it is likely to be on the left wing, with Freddie Steward already watertight in the full-back spot.

England have lost one of the few midfielders who can perform ‘marriage services’ in their backline and knit attacking play together.

Slade may have been cast out, but it is the England backline which has been left in a prison of selectorial making. Without the Exeter man, there is no play-making support for the nominal 10 in midfield and the range of passing and kicking has been reduced. England have lost one of the few midfielders who can perform ‘marriage services’ in their backline and knit attacking play together. It may not be a fatal wound, but it certainly reduces England’s options with ball in hand.

It places the fly-half under more pressure, because the workload at first receiver is no longer spread around so easily among a committee of able confederates. With that in mind, who is Steve Borthwick’s number one choice at 10?

In the first game of the double-header against Wales in Cardiff, it was Marcus Smith, given a full Harlequins supporting cast in the spine of the team, with his Stoop club-mates Danny Care at scrum-half and Alex Dombrandt at number eight. In the return match at Twickenham, it was a combination of Leicester (or ex-Leicester in the case of George Ford) and Saracens, with a Sarries’ starting eight (Billy Vunipola) and 10 (Owen Farrell) and three other half-backs with a distinctive Tigers’ flavour – Jack van Poortvliet and Ben Youngs at scrum-half and Ford on the bench for his old mucker Farrell.

Harlequins and Leicester do not play the game the same way, so it is hard to detect the continuity of thinking: for example, only one team in the Premiership (Bristol) kicked for fewer metres per game than Harlequins last season, but Tigers kicked the most. Leicester was the only club to average more than 1,000 kicking metres per game over the regular season. Quins kick short, Leicester tend to kick long. What is the thread which united the two selections in those pivotal positions?

With a full complement of ex-Leicester coaches on hand – Kevin Sinfield, Richard Wigglesworth, Tom Harrison and Aled Walters – there is little doubt Borthwick will default to what he knows – to Tigers (his club as a coach) and Saracens (his last club as a player) – when push comes to shove on the biggest stage of all.

Until we reach that point, it looks as if the interminable toing-and-froing will continue. Listen to the England head coach’s comments in the media about young back three player Henry Arundell, then compare them with the cold hard facts.

“He is in great physical shape and I think he’s got such incredible natural talents that you want to ensure that is always going to be there, that he trusts his instincts – that’s what we want.

“When you look around world rugby right now you see teams have got people who can break the game up in different ways. One of those ways is pace and he has pace.

“If we can get him the ball in space, and he in particular doesn’t need a huge amount of space, he can make things happen. We have already seen him do that in an England shirt and we are looking forward to seeing him do it more.”

So far, so good. England want to get the ball into the hands of the brightest young back-three talent in the land. But a quick glance at the stats from the second game between England and Wales reveals Arundell carried the ball the fewest times (twice) for the fewest metres (13) of any back-three player on either side – though he did kick for 106m. Both of his runs came off kick returns, so there was no structured attempt to involve him from scrum or lineout at all.

The other main issue is the lack of support for Farrell at first receiver. Farrell handled the ball on 20 occasions from the spot, but the principal support came from two forwards, Ben Earl and Vunipola with six touches apiece.

How did these issues spin out in practice? Farrell started by trying to connect with the youthful England prodigy via the kicking game. After England had regained a high bomb deep in the Welsh 22 in only the third minute, a prime opportunity arose to involve the speedster

It’s a decent nudge, and it gives Arundell a 50-50 chance of getting to the ball first, before full-back Liam Williams, in the Wales in-goal area. In the event, Williams won the contest and it was the closest Arundell came to a try the whole game.

As the first half developed, it became more obvious the diagonal kick was the best hope of connecting England’s one and only play-maker with their most lethal finisher.

At the very moment Farrell puts boot to ball, Arundell is in those acres of unmarked space Borthwick said he wanted to see, but England’s attacking line is far too flat to get the ball to him by hand.

It was a repeated theme.

The initial incision by Courtney Lawes opens up the field for another attack on the right-hand side, but the lines of support in that area are so flat the only option is more contact on the following phase. The space for Arundell which Lawes began to create on first phase is squashed by poor structure on second, and there is no chance of the young right wing receiving the ball with opportunity still alive in front of him.

When the structure was right, Farrell chose the wrong option.

If Farrell can bring Daly and Steward into play on the right, there is every chance of penetrating that yawning gap on the left of the Welsh defence, even with Arundell off the field on a yellow card. But the Sarries 10 picks out Joe Marchant with the in-pass instead, and he is swallowed up by the interior defence.

The absence of any true alternate first receiver heaped too much pressure on one man’s shoulders as the game unfolded.

In this instance, it is Wales’ turn to be a man down through a yellow card, and Arundell is all on his lonesome near the right touchline. But Farrell needs too great a wind-up off his left hand to find him with a long delivery, and the outcome is a fumble. Now imagine Slade presented with the same opportunity, and predict the result.

Ollie Lawrence has no sooner made a break down the left than Farrell is forced to add himself to following ruck as a cleanout support. That in turn means Steward needs to appear behind the next line of forwards, and he will not be over-calling for the ball and moving it out towards Arundell via the pass anytime soon. When the England full-back cleans out at the ruck over Lawes, the hosts are out of first receiver options on the right side, and there is simply nobody left to shift the ball towards the most dangerous runner on the field.

The grand problem of the England attacking pattern has proven to be an unwanted and high-profile hangover from the Eddie Jones era. Where Jones spent far too much time fiddling with the Smith-Farrell experiment in the 10-12 axis while Rome burned all around him, his replacement has thus far been no more successful at establishing clarity in those pivotal play-making roles.

Borthwick tried both Smith and Farrell at 10 during the 2023 Six Nations, and he was still hopping between the pair in selection for the double-header against Wales. He gave Smith a Quins arsenal and surrounded Farrell with men from Welford Road and the StoneX Stadium without noticeably improving the results.

Meanwhile, in Slade, he has dropped the one midfielder who can provide width and open the field to both sides with the pass and the boot. It has left England’s outside backs in general, and young tyro Arundell in particular, short of ball and short of hope of ever getting it.

If Farrell starts, England have to find someone who can help him out with the play-making duties. If they turn to Ford, it may yet reunite the childhood friends who led England all the way to the World Cup final in 2019. They may not be ‘habitual criminals’ like Norman Stanley Fletcher in the television series, but they are the usual suspects. They may yet rescue the good ship Borthwick as it creaks and groans towards French harbour.


Derek Murray 298 days ago

Hi Nick. Might England be better to go with Steward on a wing and play Slade at FB? The twin playmakers at 10/12 never really worked for them

bruce 299 days ago

Problems start at the back. Steward is over-rated and not a big enough threat when he gets the ball.

Richard 300 days ago

The best thing for England would be a long ban for Farrell......there said it!
I think he crushes the life out of the other England players.
Billy, as others have pointed out here, is a one dimensional lump......bring in Mercer.
And, with all the talent available, why on earth is Ludlum there?
SB is just EJ version 2.0, with even less imagination and no personality.
Oh and the reason Sam Simmonds et al did not "stick" in the no8 position was because EJ insisted he MUST play like Billy the Blob and not like Sam Simmonds, one of the fastest most dynamic no8s in the world.
And finally, it would be another nail in the coffin for rugby if a team like England do well at the RWC.........who, hand on heart, can say they enjoy watching them play?
SO DULL.......

dan 301 days ago

Interesting to compare the approaches of Jones and Borthwick - Jones seems to be swinging wildly into an unknown future while Borthwick retreats to the safety of the past. I am a lot more excited about the Wallaby squad than the English one.

JD Kiwi 301 days ago

Problem with Borthwick is he hasn't moved his tactics on from Eddie's. Even Sarries evolved their tactics last season and became more expensive.

Mark 301 days ago

Borthwick and his entire backroom staff were poached by England from Tigers enmasse.
If the RFU had a scintilla of leadership or insight they would have insisted that at least the new attack coach was from a different environment and mindset.
Think Sam vest of saints for example.
Borthwick has surrounded himself with like minded, risk averse thinkers.
It's a cult of the unimaginative.

Al 301 days ago

Nick, thanks for your superb analysis.

BigMaul 301 days ago

Farrell needs a centre who can create because Farrell isn’t creative. So Farrell/Lawrence/Slade has good balance. But pick Ford or Smith and you don’t need a creative centre. So Ford(or Smith)/Lawrence/Marchant has a good balance.

It’s all about the combinations. Look at their clubs - Farrell has a playmaker in Lozowski. Ford and Smith don’t.

More often than not, when England have played Ford or Smith it’s been with Farrell at 12, which doesn’t bring the best out of either Ford or Smith. If Farrell gets a big ban (please!) Borthwick will be forced to play Ford (or Smith) with 2 of Tuilagi/Lawrence/Marchant. That could work really well, assuming the tactic isn’t for Youngs to kick everything.

David 301 days ago

Why do England insist on playing slow cumbersome No 8's when the best No 8 in the world was sent home from the training camp. Zac Mercer player of the year for France last year moved from Montpellier to Gloucester in order to make himself available for England. However Borthwick insists he has no specialist No 8 available.

F 301 days ago

I'm a Scotland fan but believe a strong England side is vital for NH Rugby. Why, oh why this persistence with Billy 0-3 mph in 20 seconds...last week he to my mind made 3x 5 metre carries than dropped to the ground recycling ball..the guy is USELESS..wake up and smell the coffee England.. interesting to see how debut no 8 cap Cian Prendergast measures up against the useless lump..great to see the return of James Lowe, IMO the best winger in NH Rugby

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