After a horrific nine months at England’s helm, Steve Borthwick has finally ignited a defensively steadfast and just-about-functional attacking game, putting together a solid run of victories to begin the World Cup in France. However, with progression from Group D ranking as an incredibly basic pre-tournament expectation, and a reputation-saving try required to clinch victory against a mediocre Samoan outfit, the last five weeks have not yet hidden the fragility of such a painfully poor 12 months.
After just five wins from 12 in 2022, Borthwick’s appointment, following the sacking of Eddie Jones, looked to many like a ‘hospital pass’. England were an ageing side in need of youth and rejuvenation and showed all the signs of an early, frustrating World Cup exit.
Of course, if Jones thought he could be pushed off the England ‘cliff’ and land on his feet in the Australian camp, he was embarrassingly wrong – another example of ‘playing the kids’ which went off piste; at least England have switched back to experience – Plan A – just in time; for now.
More due to injuries and suspension than tactical wit, the George Ford/Owen Farrell midfield partnership of old seems to be reunited. The pair, now 30 and 32 respectively, had not played together since early 2021, but since Farrell’s ban and Marcus Smith’s failure to provide the team with stability from fly-half, George Ford found himself back in the starting XV. Two man-of-the-match performances later, and he seems undroppable for Borthwick.
England coaches use Ford and Farrell together at the expense of fast, fluent, flowing rugby – it being replaced with more kicking and more breakdowns. The combination may not work as telepathically as in years gone by, but it may nonetheless be formidable enough for England to reach the latter stages of the tournament. They have won three Six Nations Championships together after all.
Having smashed through Chile, many argued there was little to learn from playing another team outside the top 20, in Samoa. How wrong they were. Borthwick is clearly itching to trust the inexperienced, but can’t bring himself to risk it on the biggest stage of all.
Marcus Smith has been shifted to full-back, starting against Chile and coming off the bench with 30 mins to play against Samoa, where he promisingly displayed his flair and flamboyance. Henry Arundell scored five tries, yes five, in the 71-0 thumping of Chile in his World Cup debut – fellow winger Jonny May went on to lather him with praise: “I wouldn’t have been close to his level at 20… he’s got an X-factor”. Yet neither of Arundell or Smith started against Samoa and the lack of creativity showed.
England have a knack of getting through seemingly unmanageable tasks when it comes to knockout rugby – look no further than the New Zealand semi-final four years ago
If anyone was expecting a leisurely victory over an exciting, yet vulnerable Samoa, the Polynesian side would’ve provided some surprises. A miserable display lacking attacking bite and composure from England allowed Samoa to seize the initiative and strike early, leading 14-8 at half time.
Inevitably, Samoa could not maintain their aggression and fell devastatingly short after, quite frankly, an unforgivable lapse in concentration allowing Danny Care to stroll in under the posts directly from a five-metre scum.
Winning all four matches in the group stage seems promising, but this performance was England’s worst of the lot and they’ll have to improve if they want to progress through the knockout stages.
So, as with all British sports fans in World Cups, we are dangerously nearing the point at which pessimistic logic and reason is increasingly thrown aside at the expense of ludicrous patriotism and St. George’s-flag-adorned pub trips. England fans would do well to remember losing to Fiji, their quarter-final opponents, in dispiriting fashion just over one month ago.
Nevertheless, cold-hearted neutrality has no place in knockout sport, and a thoroughly spectacular win against a strong Argentina side – playing with just 14 men for 77 minutes – is surely enough to energise even the most cynical English rugby lovers. The semi-finals will have to be England’s ‘Promised Land’ though; there are too many outstanding outfits for Borthwick and his players to have any loftier ambitions. Ireland, France, and South Africa are on a different level at the moment – New Zealand are there or thereabouts.
However, England have a knack of getting through seemingly unmanageable tasks when it comes to knockout rugby – look no further than the New Zealand semi-final four years ago.
Anyway, enough dreaming. Onto the challenge of Fiji first.