Two games, two wins; four tries scored and just one conceded. England may not have been very good so far, but, as one source close to the camp suggested on Monday, Steve Borthwick’s squad are happy to give the impression that the Millwall approach of ‘no one likes us and we don’t care’, at least during the pool stages, is warranted if it gets results.
Victory against Chile on Saturday will secure England’s progress to the quarter-finals, a prospect that looked like a pipe dream when Fiji stormed the Twickenham fortress last month, following warm-up defeats by Wales and Ireland.
Of course, the difference between Millwall and England is that Borthwick’s squad do care. Richard Wigglesworth, the side’s attack coach, admitted as much when addressing the issue of the side’s confused, inaccurate, and limited strategy in the bonus-point victory over Japan in Nice on Sunday night.
There were moments when England’s risk-averse preference to kick away possession rather than attack space frustrated the crowd at the Stade de Nice to the extent that boos rang around the stadium.
“We are not happy with where we are attack-wise,” admitted Wigglesworth. “We are striving to improve. That is not to do with the kicking game. It is not separate from it either. It is all tied up. We want to kick the ball brilliantly so we either get it back in a better position or we kick to score.
“As far as the booing goes, it is part and parcel of what you do in international sport. You are in the biggest arenas and the fans are entitled to do what they feel is right. We will all strive to improve so we are as efficient as we can be with the ball.”
Which brings us to the imminent return of Owen Farrell, with the England captain available again having served his four-game ban. George Ford has been one of England’s stand-out players in his absence, kicking 27 points in the victory over Argentina. Yet Farrell remains Borthwick’s standard-bearer and talisman.
It is inconceivable that he will not start England’s key games at this World Cup and his availability opens up the prospect of a return of the Ford-Farrell axis to give Borthwick’s side two play-makers in a backline that has looked far too predictable.
England have so far turned to Marcus Smith as their makeshift full-back to improve their potency in the final quarter and his cameo against Japan was eye-catching.
“I think he’s been really smart with how he has done it,” added Wigglesworth. “One, he wants the ball. He is desperate to get his hands on the ball first and foremost. But he’s been really smart with where he positions himself, how he gets it, and hasn’t tried to play like a 10 out wide. He’s gone ‘get me the ball, and then I’ll play on’.
“Then he’ll use the capability he’s got with his feet and his acceleration. It’s really testament to him about how smart he is. He could have been a bit lost having not played there much but he is not. He worked out the best places for him to get the ball to have a positive impact on the team. I’ve been really impressed with him.”
With Farrell available again, could the match against Chile offer the perfect opportunity to start all three to radically shift England’s attack away from the kick-pressure numbers game?
As fanciful as it sounds, Wigglesworth revealed it is an option that is possible and now under consideration. England are expected to make wholesale changes for the game against Chile, which could see Farrell return at fly-half and Smith starting at full-back.
And even if Farrell retains his place at fly-half for the final pool game against Samoa, with Ford dropping to the bench alongside Smith, it seems that England are now fast-tracking a strategy that could see all three on the pitch at the same time as their World Cup campaign edges towards the business end.
“It’s not unthinkable but it is about what else is around them,” added Wigglesworth. “If we have absolute runners around them and that is their skill set we want to upskill as many guides as possible to see the picture early and be able to execute things.
“So I don’t think it is unthinkable, but you have to have a balance around them. We also have Elliot Daly who can run and pass as well, but it is making the balance right. If you do that, it is not unthinkable.
“I also think that we will develop as the tournament goes on. We have been working incredibly hard to get it right.
“What we have seen in this World Cup so far, the most successful teams have had a very skilled and efficient kicking game. We are working on ours to make sure it is in the best possible position it can be. We had success against Argentina with our contestable kicking game and we want to add variety to that.
“We have seen multiple cross-field kicks from the best team in the world, multiple kicks in behind. We want to make sure we have as much variety as we can because that will help the attack.
“I’m a tough critic and we all see things and it feels a bit far away from what we wanted at times, but I am sure we will improve and the little things we are doing, we will start to see them fire.”
As things stand, the Millwall approach has been enough to buy England time to continue to develop their game in the real-time situation of the World Cup. The prospect of a Ford-Farrell-Smith combination all on the pitch at the same time in the white heat of a World Cup quarter-final in Marseille, could yet see a nation fall in love with their team again.