England: Five fixes Steve Borthwick’s side must make in Six Nations finale against Ireland

England coach Steve Borthwick Credit: Alamy
England coach Steve Borthwick Credit: Alamy

Playing the number two and one ranked sides in the world on consecutive weekends is something akin to the Labours of Hercules. However, that’s precisely the challenge England face on Saturday as they take on Ireland at the Aviva Stadium.

Planet Rugby’s James While examines the issues that Steve Borthwick’s men need to fix in order to be competitive in Dublin.

Strategic air command

For the France match Borthwick recalled the wonderful Marcus Smith in the 10 shirt and dropped Owen Farrell to the bench, but with England failing to impress he seems certain to revert to the Saracens veteran at fly-half.

For all Smith’s running talent, England missed any form of go-forward against Les Bleus. The wins against Italy were built upon strong structure and Farrell’s ability to hit reclaimable contestable kicks in the channels (14, of which 11 were won back) and for his forwards and midfield to then control the drop zone.

Sure, it’s maybe not quite the visceral attacking rugby that some fans wish to see, but Test matches are primarily won on set-piece and collision dominance, and at this moment in time, developing England for the 2023 Rugby World Cup hinges around created a competitive tactical playbook, with selection informed by the ability to deliver that structure over and above any form of perceived X-factor running ability.

Word on the street is that Henry Arundell is slated to start and it’s useful to understand that all of England’s proposed back three are able to play at full-back, emphasising their aerial skills.

Farrell’s return to 10 will also allow a more nuanced territorial game and greater control of exit kicks; too often England were long with their kicking against France, something that both Thomas Ramos and Romain Ntamack profited from greatly. If England repeat this against the long-range running brilliance of the Irish back three then they will be toast, whereas contestables and pragmatic territory kicking will give England a degree of hope.

Breakdown speed

To put it bluntly, France’s outstanding back-row destroyed England’s breakdown with devastating consequences last weekend. The clip of Alex Dombrandt’s lethargic restart catch, followed by Francois Cros’ bone shuddering tackle and clearout of the subsequent ruck haloed the issues in three seconds of rugby.

Firstly, Dombrandt’s carry into contact was far too weak with no fight to remain on feet and allow support. Secondly, Cros’ speed to release the tackled player and return over the ball was blinding – as he does so, Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler are so slow to react that by the time they arrive, Cros has won the ruck and in doing so, commits both players and the arriving Ollie Chessum and Maro Itoje. In one movement he has created a numerical mismatch of 14 v 11 – world-class back-row play – and the reason why Ben O’Keeffe has to award a penalty.

England have a mobile back and front-row; there’s absolutely no excuse for not reacting faster in these situations. Against Ireland, they’ll be up against some masters of ruck in Josh van der Flier and Peter O’Mahony; it’s essential that speed and body height are employed, together with fight from the ball carrier, to slow down Ireland.

Failure to control their own carries and rucks will result in an Irish field day as their delivery of tactics and team cohesion are at All Black levels, honed by the Leinster connection and assisted by the sheer amount of time this squad has been and played together.

Red zone efficiency

In both of their Six Nations defeats against France and Scotland, England spent more time attacking in the opposition 22 than their opponents did in theirs. From that you can glean that England are lacking efficiency. Part of this has been a propensity to try and engineer short kicks when the narrow channels have gotten close when on several occasions taking contact and resetting the phases may have yielded better results.

To play that wider contact game comes back to the ruck support. Once a side has been through five or six phases, statistically their chances of getting turned over increase by 15% with each successive ruck as they run out of clearing/securing players. The way to overcome this is fast initial contact and pacy support from the forwards to clear, using as fewer players as possible. That means absolute pace and accuracy is required.

Post-match, the French back-row players revealed at the press conference that they had spent three days focusing purely on breakdown work and speed of recycle; it’s this that allowed them the efficiency and space to produce their incredible performance. There’s no doubt England have the firepower in the likes of Henry Slade, Arundell and others – they just need to improve accuracy and efficiency in their attacking play and their forwards must support this ambition with a much improved showing.

Ace the base

Up in the East Stand press box, one of the conversations that developed during the French game was the speed of Antoine Dupont’s hand to kick time; as he lifts the ball he kicks in one fluid movement at pace or he breaks instantaneously – leaving defences scrambling or running backwards to field, without the ability to restructure. It’s high pressure half-back play from the best in the world, but at the heart of this is his mental approach in committing to doing this swiftly.

Contrast this with Jack van Poortvliet, who appears to have taken the five second ruck clearance directive as an opportunity to gather his thoughts before acting. His ponderous performance removed any inertia England developed and it also allowed France’s defence the luxury of an expresso and a Gitane before they had to react to Van Poortvliet’s play.

All sides want momentum and speed on their plays and this relies upon a scrum-half setting the tone. The keys are incisive decisions, quick execution and variety of play, all three things absent during Van Poortvliet’s tenure on the pitch. There’s no doubt he has the ability to do this and right now he looks like a ponderous shadow of the player we first saw capped under Eddie Jones. England need to fix their work at the base, whether by Van Poortvliet upping his decision and execution speed, or alternatively giving the excellent Alex Mitchell a Test start.

Leave building blocks

Whatever happens on the scoreboard on Saturday, England need to put in an individual and team performance, that goes without saying.

A Test side needs 10 nailed on players as the pillar of their Test side – guys that are the building blocks of their game plan. At the moment, other than Freddie Steward, Chessum (injured), Ellis Genge and Farrell, not one England player is a nailed on starter. Sure, there’s a couple close and both Lewis Ludlam and Max Malins have shown promise, but it’s time for them to justify their selection and show they’re part of England’s future rather than memories of the past.

Expect to see a few selectorial changes other than the obvious move back to Farrell at 10. Planet Rugby would love to see a better blend of skill in the forwards – bringing David Ribbans in at lock offers a lot of carry and skill but lessens physicality. Pick him but adjust the back-row to suit by adding George Martin’s doggedness at six, either moving Ludlam to eight or to seven to accommodate him.

It is key that Borthwick walks away from this game with a performance from a number the fringe players that tells him they’re ready to be a structural part of his plans. Failure to do this means that England will be no further forward at the end of the 2023 Six Nations than when they met pre-tournament at the Gloucester heat camp in January.

That would be an unmitigated disaster for English Rugby and the RFU who placed so much faith in both Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield.

James While’s XV: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Henry Arundell, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Max Malins, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Alex Mitchell, 8 Lewis Ludlam, 7 Jack Willis, 6 George Martin, 5 Maro Itoje, 4 David Ribbans, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Ellis Genge

READ MORE: Six Nations: Five storylines to follow in the final round of the Championship as Ireland go for the Grand Slam

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