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FEATURE How England can ride the World Cup wave to Six Nations success

How England can ride the World Cup wave to Six Nations success
7 months ago

England head coach Steve Borthwick may not want to come home after the World Cup. Not because he doesn’t have family, or treasure his roots in Cumbria, or at Welford Road. But he may feel, with some justification, that it is no bad idea to play every England home game away from Twickenham.

The tournament in France at last allowed Borthwick some breathing space to pull the playing group together on his own terms, away from the West London spotlight. The booing at stadia in the land of England’s most bitter historical rival was not quite as loud as it had been at the old cabbage patch in the summer, nor as vociferous as it became for Eddie Jones before he was finally forced out at the very gloomy end of 2022.

There is a sizeable and influential body of opinion which will never accept Borthwick’s New Model Army, nor its commander-in-chief on the playing field, Owen Farrell. Farrell has won over 100 caps for his country and represented the British and Irish Lions on three consecutive tours, but somehow none of it will ever be good enough.

After his announcement as star du match in the wake of England’s 30-24 quarter-final win over Fiji, Farrell was roundly booed when he appeared on-screen, despite contributing 20 points to the victory. As England kicking coach Richard Wigglesworth observed after the game, “We are lucky to have him. As ever, the tallest trees catch the most wind, and he seems to catch a fair bit of it. [Owen] has proven [himself] time and time and time again, and I don’t understand why, in England, we feel the need to not celebrate that, not enjoy it, just because he is not sat in front of social media or media lapping all that up.

“He is incredibly serious about his career, he is an incredibly proud Englishman, he affects any team he is in, and he was brilliant for us, as we knew he would be. That was the maddening part of any noise – we knew what was coming.”

England's <a href=
Owen Farrell celebrates with teammates” width=”5025″ height=”3210″ /> MARSEILLE, FRANCE – OCTOBER 15: Owen Farrell of England celebrates the team’s second try scored by Joe Marchant during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 Quarter Final match between England and Fiji at Stade Velodrome on October 15, 2023 in Marseille, France. (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

The most ironic part of the whole Farrell saga is that he is an integral part of a Saracens side which has revolutionised its approach since the 105-kick bore-fest against the Leicester Tigers in the 2021-22 Gallagher Premiership finale. The Welford Road side stayed largely the same, but Saracens moved their style forward dramatically in the following season.

In a league which proudly boasts the highest ball-in-play time of any top professional competition in the world (over 38 minutes per game), the club from North London:

  • Scored the most points in the league (695), and were runners-up in tries scored (87), just behind the Northampton Saints.
  • Ran for more metres-per-game than anyone bar Northampton, while making the most line-breaks (7).
  • Cut back their kicking metres to 827m per game – seventh in the league, 330m per game less than Leicester.

Owen Farrell’s Saracens were riding the zeitgeist of the English Premiership, which is determined to provide a spectacle with more substantial attacking content than ever before. With the likes of Worcester Warriors, Wasps, London Irish and the Jersey Reds all folding their professional tents before the end of the 2022-23 season, the urgency of that movement will only intensify. An over-inflated ‘wild west’ wage structure, lower attendances at the gate and a flatlining TV broadcast deal will see to that. The product in the shop window needs to be seen to be providing top value for the punter’s dollar.

Farrell has shown he can be a smooth cog in a club machine with wider attacking ambitions.

And this is exactly where the fates of Owen Farrell and Steve Borthwick will need to converge, or move forever apart with ‘Twickenham man’ poised to make his displeasure felt. Saracens have shown that they can transform their playing personality as a club, and Farrell has shown he can be a smooth cog in a club machine with wider attacking ambitions – ably supported by a cast of playmaking lieutenants including Alex Lozowski, Elliot Daly and Alex Goode. Can Borthwick now perform the same magic trick at national level?

Veteran England wing Jonny May summed up the issue nicely:

“We’re starting to see what a genius Steve is, in terms of how he’s starting to get this team going.

“You won’t find a harder working man than Steve and his approach to the game is a little bit like [World War II code-breaker] Alan Turing.

“If anybody is going to crack the code to rugby it will be Steve – and good luck to him. He’s getting ever closer each week. He’s got an analytical brain and evidence-based, scientific, Spock-like approach to the game.

“Within his ways, he’s on to something. He’s a young coach, and he’s unique – it’s different the way he goes about the game. He’s obsessed with it.”

PARIS, FRANCE – OCTOBER 21: Owen Farrell of England at full-time after their team’s defeat in the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between England and South Africa at Stade de France on October 21, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Julian Finney – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Steve Borthwick eventually produced a game-plan which came closer than any other team in the knockout stages to toppling the defending world champions – but can he build a team which will make regular visitors to Twickenham feel that the £200 they spend on a blue-riband ticket, or the £1,000 plus they fork out on a hospitality package truly delivers a bang for their buck?

‘Within his ways, he’s on to something’, but the Six Nations is a very different beast to the World Cup, and there will be far more of a demand to not just win, but win with style. The Cavalier will want to have his say, even amid a sea of Roundheads, with a roundhead vision of how games of elite rugby are won. There will need to be a few flourishes, and rather more than a smattering of flamboyant, full-blooded cavalry charges with rugby’s equivalent of Prince Rupert at their head, and his hunting poodle ‘Boy’ at his side.

England’s try-scoring range and capacity will need to improve radically, and there may be some uncomfortable selection choices to be made in the process. At the World Cup, England had the lowest average ruck speed in the entire tournament (4.72 seconds per ruck) and the lowest ratio of lightning-quick ball of any of the nations in the last eight bar Wales (33 per cent). At the same time, they kicked the most (36 times per game, six more than anyone else in the competition).

How can you develop speed in your attacks, quickness of movement and realignment, and a higher density of LQB repetitions when you are always kicking the ball away?

Let’s take a look at some of the obstacles lying in the way of a broader English attacking game in the 2024 Six Nations. The bulk of these examples – taken from the fascinating pool game versus Samoa – occur in situations where the men in white are looking to pass off the dominant hand, from right to left:

 

 

It is the same two-phase move from lineout, 20 minutes apart. In both cases, Manu Tuilagi makes good yardage on first phase from lineout and sets up LQB for England No 9 Alex Mitchell. So far, so good – but second phase comes to grief and ends in turnover.

England are attempting to utilise hooker Jamie George to connect a vertical line of attackers – fullback Freddie Steward at the top of the play, with No 10 George Ford and No 8 Ben Earl directly behind him. In the first clip, Steward overruns the play and gives the Samoan defender an easy read on the ball in behind, in the second the ball is intended for the fullback himself but the intent is again too transparent. One busted play may be regarded as a misfortune, but two looks like carelessness.

The errant link between forwards and backs was a constant thorn in England’s side throughout:

 

 

Both clips come from within the same attacking sequence early in the second half. England have good depth of alignment out to the left but the forwards hit the line too early to be convincing decoys, and there is too much space between the two lines of attack. Steward then compounds the issue by hurling a long, looping pass which only brings the Samoan defenders on to the ball with added momentum.

In the second instance, the middle man of the forward pod (Maro Itoje) is passing off the back foot and is therefore no threat to run, which has precisely the same effect as before: the entire blue defensive line heaves forward on to the men outside Maro, with the ultimate negative outcome – a breakaway interception.

 

 

If the first sequence is another example of that yawning gap developing between forwards and backs in the two lines of attack, creating impetus for Samoa rather than England, there is also an object lesson in the misuse of space. There is no reason for Jonny May in particular, to come to a confused halt in the middle of the field with another three backs outside him, and Marcus Smith making up ground fast from the back-side of the play.

It was the appearance of the Quins’ man off the bench which helped right some of the wrongs in England’s best move of the match:

 

On this occasion, replacement prop Kyle Sinckler is only passing the ball right in the teeth of the D, with Smith in close attendance behind him. The spatial relationship is right, and it produces an immediate dividend further out. Only a forward pass from Itoje to Joe Marchant on review denied England a well-worked try.

He may not like it as much as he enjoys donning a tracksuit or studying stats late into the still of night, but Steve Borthwick has a public relations role to fulfil as the head coach of England. He not only has to produce a successful side, he has to create one whose style the Twickenham faithful will feel able to support. A family of top-drawer £200 tickets will not leave so much in the budget for the pre-game hamper, so spectacle on the field will be at a premium.

As a club, Premiership champions Saracens have kicked on, and managed the transition from power-based grapplers to sinuous attackers, but Borthwick’s alma mater at Welford Road, the Leicester Tigers have not. The club game is under pressure as never before to generate entertainment, and value for money, and that will translate upwards to the national team.

However close Borthwick may feel he is to cracking rugby’s secret code, somehow his Enigma machine will need to hone the attacking talents of Marcus Smith, Ollie Lawrence, Henry Arundell and Freddie Steward for the solution to be accepted. Young Henry probably receives more passes in one training session with Racing 92 than he does in an entire season with England, and that will not do at all. Raise your swords and charge – or that heroic semi-final loss to South Africa will be washed away all too quickly from the collective West London rugby memory.

Comments

81 Comments
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d 220 days ago

Thanks Nick, as an Aussie it is great to hear some of the background to these players. Is it rare for a Leicester coach to coach the national side? Wondering if the Twickenham fans will stay loyal or turn quickly if they kick as much as they did in the WC! And have to ask, is Dan Mackellar struggling with the Tigers or just adapting? Cheers

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Shaylen 220 days ago

Hi Nick, Great analysis once again. Farrell really doesn’t get his dues. He lacks the charisma to really win the public over but he is a fine player and despite his flaws is an asset to England. I think Smith is the answer for England though. Having watched his performance against Leicester this weekend I have to say he looks like he sees the space and knows when and how to attack it. With Smith its instinctive as opposed to contrived which it sometimes does look for Farrell. Whilst England have performed well at this world cup Borthwick will still be under pressure. He is losing the PR battle and doesn’t excel in that department as you have mentioned. Any change in style inevitably leads to mixed results at first as the change can be hard to adapt to. Just look at how England struggled to attack against lower opposition in this past tournament. As much as it makes sense to change will he be given time if results turn to implement the change? I seriously doubt it. Does Borthwick have it in him to make those changes given the risks? I suppose we will all see but I doubt he will do it.

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bruce 220 days ago

Stopped reading when you wrote that Richard Wigglesworth is the kicking coach.

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Mitch 220 days ago

When you watch the Gallagher Premiership, you do see some excellent attacking rugby as evidenced by the 3 games on TNT Sport over the weekend. And it's not like foreigners are responsible for the attacking rugby on display. It’s not just a matter of can Borthwick change his approach but will he?

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Mzilikazi 220 days ago

“…..Saracens moved their style forward dramatically in the following season.” Interesting what you have to say here, Nick. I have not watched any Gallagher games thus far, but do note that Saracens currently sit 6th on the table. But I would put that down more to the fact that, so far, the RWC players have been missing. Looking at their player roster, I would think they will surge up the table, now that those players are returning. They could well be a the team to beat, both in the Gallagher Prem, and in Europe.

It is also interesting to note that Pau sit atop the French Top 14 table. At this stage almost certainly for the same reason. They usually sit well down, often struggling to stay up in the top league in France. And on Friday morning last, Connacht topped the URC table, same reason again. And they only dropped after the weekend due to one Ben Healy dropping the winning goal at the death in their game against Edinburgh. The same Ben Healy, born and raised in Tipperary, that Ireland have let go to his mother’s native Scotland. I big mistake, I fear !

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JD Kiwi 220 days ago

After watching Wiggy’s Leicester attack do very little last season it's hard to imagine him igniting that potentially potent English backline. It'll be interesting to see what effect the World Cup winning South African assistant coach will have though. They could play some nice rugby when they wanted to and didn't play Pollard.
BTW chat is that Arundel doesn't have the workrate and defence required by Borthwick and Farrell.

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Mzilikazi 220 days ago

Really interesting article and analysis, Nick. Steve Borthwick has some great talent to work with, and I hope he can produce a really good team that really brings out the best in all of his players. That will be the test of how good a coach he is. I feel deep down he must use the talents of Marcus Smith wisely for his team to reach full potential.

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Jon 220 days ago

It’s because of his disregard for player safety right?

Ball-in-play is a good stat to ensure fans get what they pay for but you don’t want to make the same mistake Ian Foster did during the world cup, trying to relate it to fast pace non-stop actoin.

It’s going to have an over inflated value if the Premiership is blowing the whistle at every opportunity like the refs did during the Rugby World Cup. Presumably all to meet some target that was set down on them or their bosses.

The best thing the RU can do for the popularity of the Premiership is sack Borthwick to find someone who will engage the fans more. If there’s a fear of a decline in the Prem then don’t look to changing what has got them there, look at finding out what has already changed. That is undoubtedly going to have been the English prospects under Eddie Jones, right? Half the incentive of a league like this is what happens after, at the pinnacle. Half the enjoyment of watching a lower division game is to see who might be coming through into your team or the oppositions.

Borthwick is not the man to help ignite that passion again. He was forced into playing Ford and it actually resulted into an exciting point scoring contest, all-be-it purely with the boot. When he went back to Farrell it was a passive snorefest. It removed all threat from their game. While the buoyancy of the England results alone will be enough to help the league, it would probably pay to keep that momentum going. Who was in charge of Saracens?

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Sumkunn Tsadmiova 220 days ago

Nick it was a thoughtful article - appreciated. One caveat though: You state “At the World Cup, England had the lowest average ruck speed in the entire tournament (4.72 seconds per ruck)….” As Sam Warburton observed brilliantly in The Times a few weeks’ ago: that stat is an overall figure for all parts of the pitch and includes all time taken for the SH to decide when to hoist the box kick. It’s a distorted figure. He instinctively knew England weren’t that bad and when he narrowed that stat down to the zone between the half way line and the oppo 22 (the zone that matters in his words) the stats between Ireland and England were almost identical. And they were the 2 quickest nations in the tournament on that metric.

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sam 220 days ago

Thanks Nick, good read. Whilst I would take a win however it comes, England need to expand their attack for both on and off field reasons. Going back to basics helped us get some WC results, but the muddled attack was a huge concern.
I have often defended Farrell, and cannot understand some of the criticism that he gets. He is a fantastic player, a proven winner and clearly a hell of a leader (based off player testimonies from all over the world). But England need something different after 10 years of Farrell as the fulcrum of our backline, and if Smith isn’t given the keys now, will he ever be by Borthwick?

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