England may not have managed to make the earth move at the Principality Stadium as Mother Nature had managed with a moderate little ‘quake on Friday but it is now abundantly clear that this is an England team shaped in the persona of its head coach, Steve Borthwick. There will be precious little shake, rattle or roll with ‘Borthball’. There are few frills, no carefree abandon, no false aspirations, no craven bullishness and precious little pretence that the route towards the World Cup in France will be a journey via Boot Camps rather than Disneyland.
Fair enough. It ain’t pretty but it has a certain efficacy and that is all Borthwick has ever promised. The former Bath and Saracens lock was never one who cared for whimsical style marks. The scoreboard was the only real reckoner although even that might get diminished if the performance itself had merited a better return than it had got.
For now, Borthwick has the will of the English people behind him. Victories in Cardiff do not come by very easily. The major caveat on the muted praise that England’s win deserves is that Welsh rugby is in a dreadful state. Three matches under Warren Gatland and three big blobs. So much for the usual inflated hype about ‘hatred for the English’ and all that tedious guff. There has rarely been a more downbeat backdrop as events unfolded, an accurate reflection of the action (or lack of it) on the field. There have been significant points in Wales history but unless this current off-pitch malaise and on-field muddle are somehow corrected then depths will continue to be plunged.
England did as England had to do – ignored the distractions and focused on their small-step incremental improvements of the Borthwick era. It might well be fair to say that Borthwick has to be given time but the flip side of that argument is that Eddie Jones managed an immediate and impressive upturn when he started active duty for real in the 2016 Championship. Rassie Erasmus with the Springboks, Gatland himself with Wales back in 2008. It invariably happens too in football when one manager is sacked and another appointed.
The next two matches, at home to a French team still with outside designs on the title and away to Grand-Slam chasing Ireland will tell us more, so much more. Sure, bedding in new practices and new systems, does take time. But it doesn’t take that much time. You can cut England some slack for the occasional mis-timed run in midfield – and there were a few of those – and maybe the early engagement at a scrum by Ellis Genge who otherwise had a stormer.
To be blunt this was one of the poorest Six Nations matches of recent times. It was cramped and crabby from first whistle to last. Wales were even worse than England.
But to be blunt this was one of the poorest Six Nations matches of recent times. It was cramped and crabby from first whistle to last. Wales were even worse than England. I know that it has been a stressful ten days in the Welsh camp with all the behind-the-scenes agonising over strike action but, please, a kid brought-up on back-fields across the land would know that if your first couple of kicks are taken by your opponent with the ease of a fielder taking a catch in the deep on a village green then any half-wit would know better than to keep doing it.
You do wonder with all the reams of data and hours of analysis for review if coaches should not just chuck it all in the dustbin one week and instruct their players – all of whom have talent – to just go out and play. Certainly if the sport were looking for an edge-of-the seat drama (and, yes, Netflix executives, you might well wonder what sort of bang you are getting for your buck if this were your one and only glimpse of the product you’re investing your dollars in) then on the day it was to be found in Rome and not in Cardiff.
England, though, stuck to their task and in the generality of what they came away with they can be reasonably happy. The aforesaid fielder in the deep, Freddie Steward, is to the international manor born and England’s back three with a welcome return to the test fold for try-scoring Anthony Watson and an engaging display from Max Malins, his horror-moment interception pass snaffled by Louis Rees-Zammit, notwithstanding, looks the part.
There are some flickering signs that England are beginning to get some sort of threatening attack in place. The build-up to the Watson try was first-rate with a well-worked set play form a midway scrum, probing down the right hand side before recycling quickly to put Watson over via a measured cut-out pass from Alex Dombrandt.
If anyone can tell me what the point of giving Marcus Smith and Henry Arundell only a matter of seconds to show what they might have to offer then answers on a postcard gratefully received.
Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade are solid enough in midfield although Slade will be aghast when he reviews a botched three-on-two late in the match. Lawrence is growing with each test. Good on him. He deserved his try, one that was also promisingly crafted.
Owen Farrell, though, had another stuttering afternoon in the no.10 shirt and if anyone can tell me what the point of giving Marcus Smith and Henry Arundell only a matter of seconds to show what they might have to offer then answers on a postcard gratefully received. Either leave them on the bench or sub them with at least ten minutes to go.
Farrell made errors and missed kicks but the die is cast and he will have to play unbelievably poorly to be dropped, even with George Ford back in the ranks. Again, Farrell has a lot of credit in the bank and that is as it should be. For the moment.
The forward pack are going to be properly tested by France and Ireland. They were solid enough against Wales with under-fire Maro Itoje more prominent at the state only for him to fade. The back-row is beginning to gell. Quite why Jack Willis was replaced is another conundrum to solve. Willis is a proper warrior over the ball and is the perfect foil to his mates alongside with Lewis Ludlam doing as Borthwick has instructed, being true to himself and his club form. Dombrandt’s instinctive pass to Watson was a real highlight.
England may not gladden our souls but they are playing to type, just as Borthwick said they would. By that measure, they are in a good place.
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