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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'Borthwick has to bring some self-discipline to proceedings. A bit of joy wouldn’t go amiss either.'

Mick Cleary: 'Borthwick has to bring some self-discipline to proceedings. A bit of joy wouldn’t go amiss either.'
9 months ago

Time to untether the wagons. Time to lift the siege mentality. Time to address a few home truths. England are in a hole and they have to stop digging or they will be well and truly buried by the time they get to France.

It was easy to understand why they got all prickly and bristling last week over the Owen Farrell farrago. The judicial process was a right old pig’s ear – muddled, contradictory, ill-conceived and unfair, the very opposite of what a disciplinary system ought to be. And so, the England management went on the offensive. (As did Andy Farrell but that is another thing entirely).

Defence coach, Kevin Sinfield, jabbed away in midweek, pointing the finger at ‘you guys’ in the media for overreacting. Steve Borthwick followed suit later in the week, lambasting the vitriol poured on Farrell.

And look where it got them. There was no reactive upside to the Millwall-like drawing together, ‘no-one likes us, we don’t care.’ Instead there was embarrassing evidence that England have become an ill-disciplined rabble with the dismissal of Billy Vunipola for an almost identical tackle to the one that caused Farrell and England (and, most pertinently, perhaps, Taine Basham) such grief. It is not ‘we guys’ that should preoccupy Sinfield. It is ‘his guys,’ the ones who seem incapable of adapting to the modern age and tackling properly. It is his job to make sure they listen and obey. It is their job to pay attention. For all the edges and nuances and sheer speed of events on a rugby field, it ain’t that difficult.

England are beset by disciplinary problems and looking rudderless at present (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Of course times have changed with a faster, more layered game being played. There are more cameras, more interventions, more scrutiny, more fine margins, more bloomin’ everything. And that includes time to get it right. To put it right. What on earth do England do behind closed doors in training? A red card used to be such a rarity. But even allowing for the way of these things  today as per TV cameras and bunker systems, a sending-off still ought to be an exception. Yet with England it has become the norm. They have had four (even if Freddie Steward’s was mitigated) against Ireland alone in the blink of any eye. It’s unprofessional and unbecoming.

Ireland scored five tries and it seemed such a routine achievement. Five tries conceded in an entire championship used to be the target, a try a match. England’s defensive record this year is quite dreadful.

That it has happened again with Vunipola indicates that the entire squad is massively on edge, unsure of themselves, worried about consequences (even though the World Cup squad has been announced), unconvinced about game plans, the way forward, all manner of stuff that feeds into a player’s state of mind. Febrile, hang-dog, lacklustre, a shambling study in miserableness as regards their body language. No snap, crackle or pop. Just thud, blunder and bash. What on earth was Anthony Watson thinking when he signalled to Ben Youngs to follow-up the wing’s high kick, a daft reversal of roles? Or take a brief sequence of play just before half-time. Elliot Daly misses a penalty kick to touch. Billy Vunipola knocks-on the subsequent Ireland clearance. A scrum penalty is then conceded. Shortly afterwards, Garry Ringrose scores Ireland’s second try. England are all over the place, playing as if they had met in one of Lower Baggot St’s finest hostelries beforehand and were still trying to sort it all out. Ireland never had to get out of second gear throughout, albeit finishing with a flourish and a well-deserved acrobatic hurrah-try from centurion Keith Earls.

Ireland scored five tries and it seemed such a routine achievement. Five tries conceded in an entire championship used to be the target, a try a match. England’s defensive record this year is quite dreadful.

Keith Earls
Ireland scored five tries to England’s one and their defensive record is far from stellar (Photo by PAUL FAITH/AFP via Getty Images)

Perhaps it’s time for Steve Borthwick to take a leaf out of Brian Clough’s book and send them all out into the night for a few beers, instructing them to let their hair down as Cloughie once did before a European Cup final. There is as much chance of Borthwick doing that as there is of Suella Braverman appearing on Dover beach with blankets and a flask of hot tea to greet the small boats.

Yet Borthwick  has some major decisions to make in the wake of likely bans for Farrell and Vunipola. Much, of course, depends on the sentences handed down. England had legitimate grievance last week as regards the half-cock judicial shenanigans. There can be no quibbling now no matter what eventuates. It might even do them some good were they to acknowledge that they have to put their own house in order first and foremost. They are rapidly becoming a laughing stock.

But, really, is this what it has come to when assessing England’s performance and future prospects, clutching at straws here, there and everywhere? I’m afraid so.

England may not have been as wanton and insipid as they were in their opening warm-up game as they were against Wales, fans taking partial refuge in the lineout shape, in their maul and in the heartening return of Ollie Chessum, a much-needed presence in the forward pack when he came on. Danny Care did as Danny Care has done for years and added a bit of snap from the replacement bench. Ben Earl, again, showed well even if he will surely be embarrassed by his OTT celebration of a crooked Irish lineout.

But, really, is this what it has come to when assessing England’s performance and future prospects, clutching at straws here, there and everywhere? I’m afraid so.

England have often gone into major tournaments trying to manage expectations, dampen down the supposed innate arrogance of their followers. No such issues for France 2023. Of course the tournament is not a write-off. England, as well as other teams, have been in similarly dire straits yet somehow prospered. In 2007 there was a 36-0 pool-stage stuffing by the Springboks to absorb before the tide turned and Mark Cueto was denied in the final. Four years later France openly turned against their coach, Marc Lievremont, following a loss to Tonga in the pool yet were the better team in the final against New Zealand only for the All Blacks to scrape home. Even South Africa four years ago had to come from a long way back pre-tournament to do what they did.

Borthwick was a member of the squad when South Africa beat England 36-0 in the Pool stages but they still reached the final (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

England have to find many things in their game, some pace for starters. Never mind a matter of seconds, their speed of ruck ball can be measured by phases of the moon. Only students of Ancient History will be able to recall the last time one of their backs scored a try.

Above all, Borthwick has to engender some self-belief, as well as bring self-discipline, to proceedings. A bit of joy and self-expression wouldn’t go amiss either. Storm Betty wreaked havoc across Dublin on Friday evening. By kick-off though things were back to normal in the city. England’s clean-up act will take considerably longer as well as be markedly harder.


Rau 300 days ago

Is it me or is it a case of the kings clothes. What is the point of being able to catch high balls if you can't do anything with them. It seems to me Freddie Steward can't tackle or position himself correctly, essential for a full back I would say.

Gordon 301 days ago

If truth be told, you need a bit of luck and momentum to win a World Cup. In 2019 you would not have picked SA to win. They were beaten by NZ in the group stage. They played the most uninspiring turgid semi against Wales. They then scrummed England out of the final - but had what turned out to be an extremely lucky break when England lost Sinkcler to a freak accident early in the game. Strangely the experienced English props were monstered and when SA had scored enough from scrum penalties and England had to take a few more risks, the SA backs were released from their shackles to finish them off. There was also an element of England being labelled as favourites after monstering NZ and SA being so poor in the semi. So who knows what will happen this year.

rod 301 days ago

Every team apart from NZ have league defence coaches & you wonder why the tackle high?

Flankly 301 days ago

England have fantastic player depth. You could randomly pick any of the top 3 English players in each position, and with a few months of good coaching they would be competitive and credible as a top team.

A high probability of winning the RWC is a much harder ask. This can be seen in the difference between the Boks in 2019 and 2023, for example. But even with the admuttedly short run up that Borthwick had, England should be in the fight against any team.

So it's hard to watch them right now. Ireland are generally excellent, but we're far from their best in Saturday. Even so England looked porous in defense, toothless in attack, and unproductive on the gainline. Not to mention the failure to learn their lessons on discipline.

Dare I say it, that the Wallabies, with a fraction of the player depth and a similar coaching runway, showed some real potential in the most recent first half against NZ. I can imagine them springing a surprise or two. Not so England, on current form.

ernie 301 days ago

The sad part is we should have stayed with Lancaster, Farrell and Catt and let them build and hopefully progress the team... Eddie Jones inherited a good base of players and he knew it and added a bit of Aussie brashness and daring do to the mix.. now we have got the ultimate bore-fest with Borthwick who just doesn't inspire. dreading Argentina...

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