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FEATURE Why Steve Borthwick must call time on England's playmaking experiment

Why Steve Borthwick must call time on England's playmaking experiment
1 year ago

New England head coach Steve Borthwick is doing his level best to spread the love and keep everyone happy. He appointed Harlequins’ ex-All Blacks pivot Nick Evans as his interim offensive mastermind, and he selected the likes of Marcus Smith at number 10, Alex Dombrandt at number 8 and Joe Marchant at number 13 for his first game in charge against Scotland at Twickenham.

It is an open question, however, just how long it lasts. He has already recruited more confederates from his days at Welford Road since the defeat last Saturday, in the shape of strength and conditioning maestro Aled Walters and kicking coach Richard Wigglesworth. ‘Wiggy’ will probably be promoted in due course to Evans’ job in charge of the attack. Add in Borthwick himself and Kevin Sinfield, who are already in situ, and it gives a four-square pyramid of Leicester excellence from which to build towards the heavens.

From now on, do not be surprised if it is Tigers, Tigers and more Tigers on top, just for good measure. The writing is probably on the wall for Nick Evans after the announcement of Wigglesworth’s appointment:

“Few people have such an in-depth, wide-ranging view and understanding of the tactical element of the game. He is a proud Englishman who has represented his country and is desperate to see us win, he will show he really cares about this team.”

It may be a case of an English broom sweeping clean after the mess Borthwick claims to have found at the end of the Eddie Jones era: “When I looked at the team in the autumn, when I measured the team and got all the data for the team, we weren’t good at anything. It was as frank as that”.

Leicester statement Wigglesworth Walters England
New England assistant Richard Wigglesworth has joined the coaching set-up from Leicester. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The beating heart of England will be moving from London to the Midlands with it. Harlequins and Leicester are like chalk and cheese in their rugby cultures, and their tactical approach to the game. Quins are the Cavaliers who would rather ride down the valley of death against the odds, and return a kick from deep positions by hand. Tigers are the Roundheads who will keep kicking it back to you, advancing on chase behind every punt like a bristling phalanx of pikes. It is a fundamental difference between the white-collar, and a blue-collar mentality.

The subtext to Borthwick’s comments after England’s fourth loss in the last six matches against Scotland was ‘At Leicester, we don’t do it that way.’

“We should have won that Test match, and really good teams would have gone and won and not let a team come back in at 20-12 up. You cannot let good teams have those opportunities. [‘At Leicester, we don’t allow them to come back’]

“We could have won the game and we didn’t. When you are putting in a new defensive system that takes time and we will keep working to improve. There are going to be mistakes with new systems. [‘At Leicester, our systems are in place’].

“I watched those games in the autumn, the team if it conceded a couple of early scores didn’t come back [‘At Leicester, we respond immediately’]. These guys did and were really strong at the start of the second half but let them back in and we will make sure won’t do that again [‘At Leicester, we keep our foot on the throat’].”

One of the biggest questions of all revolves around the presence of Marcus Smith in a team based on the philosophy that Borthwick cultivated at Welford Road. Leicester averaged the highest number of kicks per game (35) and the most number of kick metres per game (over 1,000) on their way to the English Premiership title in 2021-22. When they met a side of like mind in the final, the outcome was 105 kicks in total, and some baseline rallies worthy of Wimbledon.

Harlequins and Leicester are like chalk and cheese in their rugby cultures, and their tactical approach to the game.

Marcus Smith is by nature most at home in chaos, when he can use his innate footballing skills to create opportunities on kick or turnover returns in a broken field. The more methodical, set-piece-based Leicester program is unlikely to generate those opportunities in sufficient bulk for him to flourish. A top-quality roundhead like Owen Farrell, or a roundhead with enough cavalier flamboyance about him to placate the white-collar clique, like George Ford, are the answer.

In the match against Scotland, England posted some massive stats on attack: they built 130 rucks, carried 178 times for over 1,000 total metres, and forced their opponents to make over 200 tackles. A time-in-possession of over 23 minutes in the modern game meant that they had overwhelmingly the Lion’s share of the ball.

Steve Borthwick’s England also managed to do what Eddie Jones’ version could not, getting Marcus Smith on the ball regularly at first receiver:

That represents a decent sample size with which to measure the potential of a Smith-Farrell axis which was in favour for most of 2022.

The main issue when Smith appeared at first receiver was a lack of connection between him and Owen Farrell:

In both of these snapshots, Farrell is standing about 10 metres behind Smith, and there is no direct danger to the defence with both forward pods, and the twin number 10s standing behind them, operating without a clear relationship to one another in attack. The men in the Scotland defensive line are under no particular pressure to make decisions or resolve immediate threats.

This is how the first scenario developed in real-time:

Smith runs sideways after delivering the pass to his forward pod, so there is no chance of a second touch for the 10 as play shifts across field. The Scottish defenders only have to read the ball-carrying forwards in front of them and can move to cover the width of the field out to their right in relative comfort. That forces the kick – a good one into the corner, but not the outcome any Harlequins or England supporter would prefer to see from a Marcus Smith.

Towards the end of the first half and the beginning of the second, England were able to build far more attacking momentum when Farrell moved into the first receiver slot:

In the first clip, Farrell is running much tighter to the forwards in front of him, taking the ball closer to the advantage line and staying squarer to the defence for longer. The speed of ruck resolution is faster and the sense of continuity stronger, and the play only slows down when the ball reaches Smith out near the left sideline.

In the second, he is willing to take ball and tackle at the same time in order to get the in-pass away to Joe Marchant right on the gain line. Suddenly the Scotland D is under stress, and a chain of simple passes is enough to convert opportunity into score on the following play.

It was the presence of Farrell at first receiver which created another chance for the Harlequins wizard in the third quarter:

Another pass delivered right on the advantage line creates a repeat tackle bust on the in-ball, enabling Jack van Poortvliet to exploit a fractured ruck defence on the ensuing phase and penetrate deep into the Scottish 22.

Marcus Smith would probably have seized the next moment in a Harlequins shirt nine times out of 10, but on this occasion, he opted to move outside and take on Scotland number 12 Sione Tiupulotu directly, rather than run inside towards the vulnerable gap between a back and a front row forward, prop Willem Nel.

Scotland did not make the same mistake in the decisive phase of the match only five minutes from full-time:

The chief playmaker is Saltires number 10 Finn Russell. On both of the left-to-right phases, Russell delays the pass until he is less than one metre from the tackler; on the first phase hitting the sensitive gap between a forward (Maro Itoje) and a back (Anthony Watson), on the second unlocking the space beyond Ben Youngs on the right edge of the field. In both cases, there is very little recovery time possible for the defence once the pass has been made: defenders cannot shuffle laterally, they have to turn on their heels and run backwards.

In the second clip, Russel only delivers the pass when he has forced a forward (Dan Cole) and the back next to him (Farrell) to run forward a couple of steps before changing course towards the right corner flag. That leaves Farrell a stride late in cover, as both he and Marcus Smith are beaten in the course of Duhan van der Merwe’s run to the goal line.

It was not the only time that the pair showed some fragility in defence:

Both Smith and Farrell are sucked on to Russell after a long throw from the lineout, levering open a yawning gap in midfield for Huw Jones to run through. A few phases later, Scotland converted by means of a short attacking kick by their own number 12, Tiupulotu:

Events at the start of the Steve Borthwick era have raised a whole host of new questions, questions which the ex-Leicester coach has sought to answer by going back to his roots, to the club he led to an English Premiership title in 2022. His defence coach Kevin Sinfield has been joined by Aled Walters and Richard Wigglesworth, as the Tigers’ influence spreads throughout the backroom.

What tactical leeway that allows Nick Evans in his interim role as attack coach is anyone’s guess. The hold that Harlequins’ players have on key spinal positions within the team, like Alex Dombrandt at number 8 and Marcus Smith at number 10, likewise becomes more tenuous by the day.

The available evidence on Saturday afternoon suggested that either Owen Farrell or George Ford (when fit) would be choices better suited to implementing the kick-heavy game plan Borthwick prefers, and better able to manipulate a defence in structured phase play. In reality, it is probably only a matter of time before the fuse burns down to the stem, and the bomb at outside half goes off.


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