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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'England proved they are more than a limited, functional side'

Mick Cleary: 'England proved they are more than a limited, functional side'
3 months ago

Is it about the winning? Or is it about the performance?

It’s always about the winning which is why the England players will head back to their clubs with a stone under their pillow, a point of regret, a sharp reminder for all the hosannas which have come raining down on them over the last fortnight, they did not manage to get across the line in Lyon, did not manage to bring to an end a losing streak against France on their home soil that stretches back to 2016. And so, they did not manage to finish above mid-table in the championship, a state of affairs that ought not to play too well in their minds.

That’s the hard take on England. As it should be. There was a time years ago when that fearsome man in black, former New Zealand captain, number eight Buck Shelford, strode into a post-match press conference after his side had just racked up a half century of points against Wales (plus ca change…). We were expecting a paean of praise from Shelford about his team’s rapturous showing. Instead we got a litany of mistakes the side had made, a list of ‘must do betters’. In the pursuit of excellence, no detail is too small, no hard truth to be conveniently pushed to one side.

Ollie Lawrence powered over for two well taken tries either side of half-time in Lyon (Photo by PA)

Of course, we all recognise England’s rolling back of the stone from the seeming dead of Murrayfield is a laudable thing. Notable as well as substantial. They have found themselves. They have seen the way forward. They have risen again. Being down among the dead men has been a dispiriting existence.

England delivered against Ireland. And they almost did so, thrillingly, engagingly, dramatically, against France on Saturday at the seething cockpit that was the Groupama. But they gave away another penalty. A harsh call? Maybe. But it was made and that’s the reality of life up where the air is rarefied. You either learn to deal with that or get back down from the mountain top. England were noble and bold and battling and fierce but they gifted the opportunities for two of the French tries through their own mistakes, ironically from lineouts, a facet of play that is a strength of theirs.

Thomas Ramos might as well have been driving his boot into the collective white-shirted solar plexus as his mighty effort took all the wind from English bodies.

The loss in France will do England good, give them pause to reflect there is still much to do if they are to get to where they want to be. Titles at the most, finals at the very least. That’s it. Anything else is for also-rans. Thomas Ramos might as well have been driving his boot into the collective white-shirted solar plexus as his mighty effort took all the wind from English bodies. Jamie George’s face, a picture of desolation, told you all you needed to know. That print needs to be framed, that memory kept alongside that little rock under the pillow.

It is not that England would not have deserved victory because they would have done. There was plenty in their performance – that word again – to lift the spirits, tons of initiative, guts and gumption as the three-try salvo either side of half-time evidenced but still they could not corral the French when it mattered.

To France the spoils, to England the hurt. That is not necessarily a burden to bear. The Steve Borthwick homework satchel will be full to the brim. And for all the sharpness in this critique, there is still huge merit to be had in performance alone. As the head coach noted: “these boys are never beaten… they just ran out of time.”

With a series of barnstorming performances, Ben Earl’s stock has risen further during the Six Nations and he is a prime British and Irish Lions contender for next year (Photo by PA)

Performance is all very well but it is the certainty of the result against Ireland that will be the foundation stone for the near as well as long-term future. England’s victory in Dublin, a pip-squeak one but, as was the case in Lyon for Fabien Galthie’s team, onethat really counted, will be within them for many months.

Borthwick spoke of ‘the trust’ that was engendered that day, the sense of player and coach, player and teammate for that matter, all aligning with each other, finally seeing the proof all the hard work they had endured could actually produce a yield. Until it happens, it is no more than theory, words on a whiteboard. Before, England affected to believe. Now they know that they can. That’s what winning brings, that’s what it means.

England could be forgiven for wishing the championship went on for another month. They have momentum. But, for now, that has to be parked, ticking over until they head to New Zealand via Japan.

That England were involved in two of the games of the tournament, raw-boned lung-screechers, shows they are at an entirely different level of fitness than they were post-Eddie Jones.

What is clear now, and what is so, so heartening for them, is they are more than a bits ‘n’ pieces side, more than a functional, limited, paint-by-numbers outfit. They can play and they can be productive. The one-dimensional England of 12 months ago were not just hard on the eye and on the heart, they were also pretty useless as that 53-10 scoreline from the self-same France fixture proved. Pragmatic rugby is okay but it has to bring results. Borthwick realised he had to get in tune with the modern way, that there has to be movement and nuance as well as thud and thump. England are now ticking boxes on both fronts.

Their tries on Saturday, particularly the last one, were all crafted albeit Gael Fickou did flap the matador cloak for the first one by Ollie Lawrence. Tommy Freeman’s try was a beaut, with its fast hands, highlighted by that gorgeous flick-on from George Ford.

Ford is every bit the warrior on the field that his schoolboy mate, Owen Farrell, was but without the snarl and occasional heavy hit. He has never moaned, just got on with the task. If either of the Smiths, Fin or Marcus, is to oust him from the number 10 jersey, they will bloody well have to earn it. By that yardstick, England are well-stocked for fly-half resources, a big plus from the tournament given it was heralded by Farrell’s effective retirement news.

That England were involved in two of the games of the tournament, raw-boned lung-screechers, shows they are at an entirely different level of fitness than they were post-Eddie Jones. It’s a mystery, or an act of negligence, their conditioning was so poor. Much as Dave Reddin did for Clive Woodward’s side, so the arrival of Aled Walters has not only got England in shape, he has made multi-phase rugby, vigorous, sustained play that stresses the opposition, a possibility if not, indeed, a necessity.

England France Borthwick verdict
Steve Borthwick has shown his adaptability and tactical nous in evolving England’s strategy (Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

A host of individuals have enhanced their claims, not just for the England project through to the next World Cup but for the Lions in Australia in 2025 – Ben Earl, Lawrence, George Martin, Ollie Chessum, George Furbank, Freeman and Manny Feyi-Waboso among others.

Borthwick has proven himself to his squad as well as to the wider public. That connection matters. Twickenham can be as the Grouprama was on Saturday night, a frothing frenzy, a tumult of support and deep satisfaction. Barbour Man goes wild. That’s where England are. How the mood has changed. That’s what performances as well as a truly significant win does for you.


Anthony 118 days ago

No one would say Ford had played well up until the last game.
One standout performance in 5 is hardly in form .
It should be a given that a 10 will control play . Not in Fords case be praised for suddenly doing so.
Where was he against Scotland ,Italy.
The pundits were saying how far away from play he was standing and one even said that the Ireland game was his last chance saloon to perform . Not exactly top form catching anyones eye.
If he can play like this game after game then great. Keep him in .
But after 90 odd caps we all know he just doesnt keep it going .
By all means keep him there but the issue is that Borthwick will persist even when he plays poorly. Which is more often than not.
Thats why i am concerned that Smith ,despite fab form , cannot get a game at his preferred spot.
Can you imagine Ford at full back .

Anthony 119 days ago

Finally,at last, Borthwick has done what the whole of England have been crying out for. Ditch the kick chase and let the players have freedom to attack and run with the ball.
It was great to see. Ford played really well and for the first time in ages was 5 yards closer to the gainline which then allowed a more attacking position .
Pity it has taken 90 odd caps to do so.
However, this has to continue and not be a false dawn .
One issue. Marcus.
With Ford having one really good game in 5 ,is he the answer long term . Smith puts bums on seats and is terrific to watch . How can you leave him out before he departs for France in disillusion . England are in danger of Simmons , Alex Goode , Cipriani , Mercer and now Smith being unable to get a selection ahead of “favourites” of the management regardless of form .

Great to see England play so well .

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