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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'This was England at home. This was Twickenham. This was supposed to be a joyous send-off.'

Mick Cleary: 'This was England at home. This was Twickenham. This was supposed to be a joyous send-off.'
9 months ago

Beat Argentina and all is forgiven and forgotten ? Yes, mad as it sounds that is the reality of what lies ahead for England – dismal, woe-begotten, leaden-brained, shell-shocked, flat-footed, PTSD-afflicted England, the most desperately unfancied Red Rose side ever to approach a World Cup. Never mind whatever post-Brexit strictures now hamper Brits as they head through customs. This England squad will skip through as they have absolutely nothing to declare.

As they laboured and laboured and laboured (after an admittedly sparky opening phase) at Twickenham on Saturday, it was striking to recall that wonderful image from mid-summer of the mighty Fijians, bound as one, slogging their way up a sand dune in the deepest, muddiest countryside, singing their way through adversity. Now that’s labouring that you can admire, labouring of purpose, labouring of joy. England played as if they were still on their own hill, mired in misery and with the summit forever out of reach.

Yet, back we go to the premature World Cup draw. If – and bear with me at this point as we indulge in fantastical possibilities – England do beat the Pumas then they are in the box seats. Tournament rugby has its own magical momentum. All that matters is getting a nose in front. Performance is pretty much irrelevant. Even Clive Woodward’s World Cup-winning side had plenty of doldrum periods on their way to the title, notably against Samoa in a pool match when only a late blitz made the scoreboard look more commanding than it actually was. Much of the Pacific Island focus over the last month has been on the damage that Fiji might inflict on the likes of Wales and Australia and onwards. Now, after their heroics in Bayonne on Saturday night against Ireland, Samoa took come very much into the reckoning, jabbing their way into English nightmares.

Maro Itoje
Maro Itoje is drenched in a downfall at Twickenham and the weather summed up the mood at England’s long gone fortress (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

In one fell swoop World Rugby’s decision to stretch the eligibility ruling to allow players to represent their country of origin finally means that a World Cup might live up to its global billing and give countries outside the mainstream a fighting chance of success. Bravo to that. See how compelling the women’s football World Cup was as new faces and new forces emerged. It has taken rugby far too long to get to this point. Fiji, of course, have been in the bracket before, thrillingly so when they ran the eventually champions, South Africa, so close in a 2007 quarter-final (37-20) in Marseille. In my rose-tinted recall Fiji played the better rugby on the day. As they very much did on Saturday against England. They savoured the occasion. England looked terrified by it.

Is it patronising then to despair of England’s inability to beat Fiji, their first ever loss to the Islanders, as if their opponents were mere fodder on the circuit, there for practice run-outs? Yeah, there is an element of that, a need to put all the doom and gloom into a little bit of context. Fiji have credibility, worthy opposition.

A capacity full-bore and full-blooded experience between South Africa and New Zealand stood markedly as a point of comparison, one a sell-out soul-enriching event, the other not.

But this was England at home. This was Twickenham. This was supposed to be a joyous send-off. This was supposed to be a full-house. This was supposed to be Steve Borthwick’s team responding to the set-backs and brickbats of recent weeks. This was supposed to be a backs-to-the-wall, let’s-ram-those-harsh-words-down-critics’-throats moment. Er, what happened to all that? It is the holistic sense of despondency that hangs over every single aspect of Twickenham that has proven to be so deflating. There must be a fifth columnist marketing person at HQ working to undermine the RFU cause because there could have been no starker contrast in relative fortunes than the Friday and Saturday experiences at Twickenham. A capacity full-bore and full-blooded experience between South Africa and New Zealand stood markedly as a point of comparison, one a sell-out soul-enriching event, the other not.  The fans are voting with their feet and if there is one man more under the cosh of public scrutiny that Borthwick it is – or certainly should be – Bill Sweeney. Bums on seats is the bottom line of RFU business. That is why results matter. England are a basket case on so many levels.

Steve Borthwick
Steve Borthwick is trying to deliver stirring messages of positivity but they are falling on deaf ears because performances have been so disappointing (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Can England turn it round and shake off this sporting mortal coil? It is so hard to see where the silver lining might be. It does not appear (yet?) that the players are up-in-arms as to what is happening around them. It’s all very well for Ellis Genge to tweet ‘ write us off now, all the best,’ as if there were undue negativity out in the stratosphere. Rather it is high time the players themselves turned any disgruntlement inwards, towards each other and towards their coaches.

The game plan, the kick-and-chase, play-the-percentages rugby that has been on offer over this past month is palpably not working. Factor in too that it is a joyless way to play the game. Its only justification is that it yields results. Or so the theory goes.

The players need to get a grip, need to stand up to the management, need to articulate a few home truths. England came back from the brink at the 2007 Rugby World Cup. This situation is different

It hasn’t for England. Likewise they all need to have a serious word with each other and with Kevin Sinfield about their defence. It is absolute pants. Sinfield’s admirable off-field persona and good works are an irrelevance. His job is to help his players defend the try-line and the scoreboard. On those metrics, England are as poor as I have ever seen them. Ill-disciplined as seen with two red cards. Porous as seen by 23 tries conceded in their last six games. There were 27 tackles missed against Fiji.

The players need to get a grip, need to stand up to the management, need to articulate a few home truths. England came back from the brink at the 2007 Rugby World Cup. This situation is different. That was a mutiny of desperation back then, the deeply ironic state of affairs seeing the players do the very thing that coach, Brian Ashton, wanted them to do in the first place and that was to take responsibility for their own actions. In short, to play what was in front of them.

Fiji celebrate
Fiji deserve immense credit for registering a win at Twickenham and play with a freedom in contract to a straitjacketed England (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

This generation look to have too much respect for Borthwick. And he for them. Despite being a PlanMan by inclination he is also too smart an individual, too fair-minded a person, to rant and rage if a player objects to certain elements of the strategy.

Well, it’s time they all did some ranting and raving. Not at the critics. Or the media (the usual whipping boys). That’s a futile, self-deluding pursuit. The problem lies within not without.

England need a revolutionary re-think. They need to storm the ramparts of their own minds. It’s their only hope.

Comments

7 Comments
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philip 296 days ago

Admirer of your Telegraph columns. Glad to hear your words here. If you are over 50 you can remember grizzly times. If you are over 70 you remember terrible times following English rugby. This team today is a mockery of a professional organisation from top to bottom, except for the kit man who is as always blameless. Catch the Argentina relish for this upcoming match in their coach's comments.

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David 296 days ago

We will come to the point where games against Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Georgia etc will be competitive and we can trot out a B team. As a Welshman I was already petrified by Fiji this hasn't helped.

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Brian 296 days ago

Don't have anything against borthwick but it's same old same old from Eddie Jones era. Should have had a more modern day coach. Borthwick was ok at Leicester where they've been tucking up their jumper for years

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Flankly 296 days ago

Different standard for Borthwick and Eddie. A draw against NZ today would be viewed very positively. For Eddie it was not good enough.

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Michele 296 days ago

Great article! I agree with every point made. We can’t know what’s going on in camp, but I am pretty uncomfortable with all the blame going to Borthwick.

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Derek Murray 296 days ago

I'm not sure what the answer to the malaise is but turning on the coach most certainly isn't it

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Tris 296 days ago

and if there is one man more under the cosh of public scrutiny that Borthwick it is – or certainly should be – Bill Sweeney
The mad thing is this is a disaster, Borthwick isnt ready and doesnt have the set up around him. But its Sweeney who got the 55% pay rise and has instigated this.

I think Borthwick is a very good coach who is either not quite ready or not quite good enough for international rugby. Its a tough gig. You dont get many shots like you do in a national league with 30 games a season. You cant buy in a player to fill a hole.

I feel that he was dammed if he did, dammed if he didnt 8 months ago. He probably didnt want to take over with a skeleton coaching ticket and only 9 games to prep. But if he doesnt take it might never come up again.

Its Sweeney for me who waited with EJ until it was to late then has stuffed Borthwick. I hope he goes, even if the team do turn this around.

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