England fans wanted, and got, a far more fluent performance in their 71-0 win over Chile, and one which, importantly, featured a back division creating and converting try-scoring chances. The real problem is how do you rate this win?
You cannot deny the evidence of 11 tries but nor can you ignore Chile’s semi-professional status. It would be wrong to overlook contributions like the belligerent and, at times, brutal one given by Lewis Ludlam, but it would be equally mistaken to assume that he will be able to make the hard yards he did against much higher ranked teams. Although Chile never stopped giving their all, it was always going to be of limited use in a power-dominated sport that does weaker teams no favours.
Steve Borthwick, England’s head coach, has a lot of thinking to do ahead of what should be another routine game against Samoa next time out. Does he rotate his squad again or does he play what he intends to be his starting XV in the knockout stages? Coaches often like to play it cute during World Cups, never revealing their true intentions until the last possible moment, thereby leaving an opponent guessing. This does prevent an opposition’s defensive team having a week to closely scrutinise your attack, but it also stops your chosen units being tested under game conditions until it really matters.
Whatever Samoa will bring to England’s final game, they will provide a robust physical challenge that will test the utility of Borthwick’s preferred selections. On balance it might be better to declare England’s hand and allow his team as much time as possible to get up to speed. They can always withhold some of their strike plays until the latter stages, having the luxury of knowing they will now top their pool.
Above all, Borthwick will have to decide on what to do with his three playmakers – Owen Farrell, George Ford and Marcus Smith. It looked at one point as though Borthwick had, wisely, decided to end the longest-running experiment in the history of English back play and accept the evidence that playing two playmakers at 10 and 12 is not more productive than allowing two conventional centres to try and forge an effective partnership.
Whether this decision was settled was thrown into doubt with the emergence of Ford from the bench against Chile and switch of Farrell back to centre but to start with this combination will pose the problem of possibly denying England’s hitherto most impressive back, Joe Marchant, a place other than on the wing. If that happens, which of Jonny May or five-try Henry Arundell would have to give way?
On top of this, what will Borthwick do when it comes to the starting full back? Freddie Steward has done little wrong during his tenure and has proved to be rock solid under the high ball, something that should not be underestimated just because he copes so well under that pressure. Yet, Smith’s ability to arrive late during England’s tertiary attacks, and to choose which side of the breakdown he appears, is far more difficult for defences to read than covering two playmakers standing beside each other. Moreover, it had proved to be a key element in breaking defensive lines rather than just distributing the ball for other players to try and make decisive breaks.
Borthwick might look at playing Steward on the wing, and that would close up one side of the field against attacking high balls, but does Steward have the predatory instincts of a winger like Arundell or May? These are better problems to have than a lack of options and Borthwick is paid to make such problematic choices, yet no option is consequence-free.
At least England have an extended period in camp before their final pool game and can look at all these options on the training field. This will also give them time to study the performances of the other likely qualifiers for the knockout stages. When they do this, it will reinforce what they must already know, that their performances individually and collectively will have to be raised markedly to compete with the intensity of teams like Ireland and South Africa.
The Irish win over the Boks was all the more remarkable considering they failed to win their own lineout ball on four successive attempts close to the South African line and also lost two other throws in the first half. To maintain an edge over the current world champions, even whilst wasting those chances, shows how high their standards are when it comes to discipline and defence. England will need to be able to find a way to crack that problem and choosing Smith could be the gamble that might just provide a solution.