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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'England are finally at the World Cup party.'

Mick Cleary: 'England are finally at the World Cup party.'
8 months ago

Let’s talk about Mike Tyson. Not only was he handy with his fists, not to mention his pigeons, but so too was he occasionally with his words. “Everyone has a plan,” growled Big Mike. “Until they get punched in the mouth.”

England have just punched themselves in the mouth.

Saturday’s 11-try demolition job on Chile brought Tyson to mind and not just because this was pitting heavyweight England against a sprightly, spirited but ultimately lightweight opponent. Chile coach, Pablo Lemoine, was quite right to bemoan the circus that is the hit-and-miss fixture schedule for Tier 2 sides, his team sent out to provide entertainment without any realistic chance of success much less sustainable improvement. All that’s for another day.

This is about new-look England and what it might mean for their prospects. They have had plenty of their own issues to contend with up in the rarefied air of the elite. England, to be fair, have been winning, a notable step forward from the morass of August and the cloying gloom that surrounded it. Even with laudable wins over Argentina and Japan there was still doubt swirling around them. Could they really prosper if kick-and-chase was their one and only strategy? And whatever happened to glory in sport, a sense of joy and exploration and wonderment, rather existential questions to be posed I know but pretty close to the knuckle when you’re forking out 300euros for a ticket and it’s grim, grim, grim?

Owen Farrell
Owen Farrell returned to the England team to provide Steve Borthwick with more selection problems (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

But then came their self-administered slap in the chops. Who precisely threw it or why, the fact is that England shook their head to clear the mugginess and let rip.

Of course it was only Chile. Of course they are the lowest ranked (22nd) team in the tournament, part-timers, tyros, novices but as gutsy and ballsy and clever as they could be until the inevitable came to pass, lungs screeching and legs turning to jelly as the bleedin’ obvious differential in conditioning levels kicked in. Chile themselves acknowledge their own limitations. All this is true. But even allowing for all that, there was a pace and energy and ambition in England’s play that had not been there since, probably, the All Blacks were whacked in the World Cup semi-final. England have been missing in action for too long. Welcome back. And now that they have found this path to enlightenment, they are beholden to stick with it for as long as is possible. There should be no turning back.

At times on Saturday, when they were running free, playing with heads-up and potent scenarios were taking shape in their minds’ eye, they looked as if they could mix it with the likes of France or New Zealand

That is not to say that they should do a complete and utter about-face in terms of their chosen approach, the one that Steve Borthwick brought with him from Leicester, but they have to recognise what Saturday meant. England are now gearing up not so much for their final pool match against Samoa but for their knockout games. England have to have designs on going all the way or what is the point of being there in the first place? And if that is a credible target in principle – yes, yes, reality is another matter – then they have to find a style of game that can trouble the best.

Marcus Smith
Marcus Smith provides different skillsets to Freddie Steward but his attacking prowess offers England options (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

At times on Saturday, when they were running free, playing with heads-up and potent scenarios were taking shape in their minds’ eye, they looked as if they could mix it with the likes of France or New Zealand and, let’s stretch the point for as far as it can possibly go, even Ireland or South Africa?  All right, not the latter pairing and while all those fanciful images may only have lasted a few seconds they were tantalising glimpses nonetheless.

In truth, England are a long way yet off matching the intensity levels of an Ireland or South Africa. That was rugby from another planet as far as the rest of the competition are concerned. Dupontless France are a different proposition now that their talisman is out of action.

Painful as it has been to watch, England have been well-served by Borthwick’s no-risk strictures. They are in the World Cup ball game.

So, yes, we are dealing with a hypothetical context for England. They looked slick and  positive but it was not the most difficult assignation in front of them. It would, however, be a betrayal of possibility if Borthwick did not entertain the idea of staying faithful to this way of playing. It does not mean that there shouldn’t be a kicking strategy in place but that it has to be modified and restrained, appropriate for the moment and not pre-ordained. Painful as it has been to watch, England have been well-served by Borthwick’s no-risk strictures. They are in the World Cup ball game. But they will not go anywhere near the podium unless they do find something extra.

Who or what is that something extra? Well, there were enough cameos in Lille to make the build-up to their last pool game an intriguing one for Borthwick and his coaching staff. By the way, I find it increasing frustrating that there is such a wait between fixtures. Scotland have had to kick their heels while the World Cup has taken shape without them. Ireland, meanwhile, have just scaled the mountain top at the Stade de France but will be shrouded in mist and cloud for another fortnight before we find out if they can sustain such levels of power and purpose when they meet Scotland.

Steve Borthwick
Steve Borthwick must decide how England are going to proceed when they face tougher opponents than Chile (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

England, too, have two weeks in hibernation. Okay, it could be time well spent if Borthwick does decide to go through the gears and flick fast-forward on his team’s development. Alternatively, as the Ryder Cup hits our screens and the cricket World Cup comes into view, rugby’s impact in living rooms across the isles is diluted. A seven week back-to-back World Cup schedule (still two weeks longer than a football World Cup) keeps intertest levels bubbling.

As for Borthwick’s England, he needs another run-out to see if the three playmaker policy can work with maybe George Ford at fly-half and Owen Farrell at inside centre and Manu Tuilagi outside. The adapted  full-back, Marcus Smith, duffed two openings before finding his feet and added to the variety of the attack. Give him another shot. Freddie Steward can easily come back into the fold. King Henry Vth Arundell also deserves a crack against Samoa.

Jack Willis did well on the flank but England are blessed with options there although it now looks as if Billy Vunipola is not the force of old so Ben Earl has the No 8 shirt.

England, finally, are at the World Cup party, It is up to them now to see how much enjoyment there is to be had, for players and fans alike. We can but hope.


Samuel 262 days ago

Genuinely think there's only so much you can read into the game obviously, but in some senses that makes it more important to try such things in a game where the intensity will be higher. Thought it was a mistake making so many changes personally when England have been so clunky and could benefit from more time to gel, especially as certain combinations - Itoje/Chessum in the second row, the Ford/Tuilagi/Marchant midfield combo - have actually started looking something like those that might be playing in a successful rugby team during the first two games, but with the need to get game time into the squad it's also understandable. For the Samoa game I'd sprinkle a few of the better performers from the Chile game into the 23 - Arundell and Steward on the wings with Smith at 15, a Ludlam/Willis/Earl back row with Lawes and Curry on the bench - while also reverting back to those combos mentioned. Hard to fit Lawes, Chessum and Martin into the same match day squad which is a shame, would if I could!

Lucio 262 days ago

England performance in the last 15 minutes against Chile was poor

Simon 262 days ago

When it comes to Fiji in the QFs, England will pick the usual team and try to power themselves to a win over the South Sea Islanders. This 'new look' team Cleary talks about is fantasy so don't get too excited!!

Neil 263 days ago

Roll the dice, Borthwick. You’ve already performed better than many expected, so take a risk or two.

More is lost through indecision than wrong decision - Tony Soprano.

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