With the reign of Eddie Jones over, Steve Borthwick inherits a squad that has underperformed but has enough talent to turn things around in time for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Planet Rugby writer James While believes there are five key areas of focus needed to complete a transformation of England at Test level and discusses them here.
There’s a reason why Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour is regarded as one of the greatest guitar soloists in music history – the simplicity and the emotional connection of his playing resonates with so many and is so easily understandable and equally memorable. His work is direct, uncomplicated yet hugely emotionally effective.
Now, no Jones side ever lacks complexity or detail – far from it – but at times they have been completely bereft of the simplicity and emotion of a great Gilmour solo. Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield need to recapture that emotional connection and the way they do that is by stripping back to the most straightforward of components – a great set-piece, gas in the backline and domination of tackle and breakdown. The message will be understand your game, connect with the emotional support of your fans and if you give them something to remember, then you are also likely to succeed.
Whilst Borthwick will provide the simplicity of technical platform for the players thrive off, Sinfield will be the man in charge of emotion – a man that can captivate a room with his words and sheer self belief, one that will provide a shining personal example to all of his charges and a personality that can people to run through brick walls for him.
Borthwick and Sinfield have no wiggle room or margin for error in England‘s build-up to the Rugby World Cup. Simplicity and emotional connection is all and expect to see Borthwick stick closely to a lot of Jones’ system legacy but fixing the dysfunctions of emotion and simplicity along the way with a very direct and no-nonsense approach.
Now, if Borthwick has one personal superpower, it’s his knowledge of rugby set-pieces. Every team he’s been associated with has delivered excellence at scrum time and perfection in lineout. Since Matt Proudfoot’s arrival with England as scrum coach, things haven’t gone quite as well as expected and England’s platform has been less than optimal.
Expect Borthwick to start with selection – he’ll pick the best scrummagers in the game, and that means a recall for Tigers veteran Dan Cole on the tighthead and potentially increased opportunities for Trevor Davison and the superb Val Rapava-Ruskin, two monster scrummagers and in the case of Rapava-Ruskin, a brilliant competitor at the breakdown.
You can forget Mako Vunipola – he’s spent the last five years stealing England caps without ever looking close to being an international standard prop – and given the focus on solidity first and foremost, you can also expect to see Joe Marler back into contention, possibly at the expense of Sale’s Bevan Rodd.
Kyle Sinckler will be there or thereabouts, but expect to see him used in an impact role with Cole anchoring the scrum in the same way he does week in and week out at Leicester Tigers.
The French connection
This is rather more long term as a vision – but with the unsteadiness of club finances within the Premiership, more and more players are fleeing for the fat cheques of France. Traditionally, Jones refused to pick players based there (or in Japan) due to the lack of squad training time they were able to commit to. Currently, the only big name casualty affected by the ruling is Zach Mercer but with Joe Marchant and Luke Cowan-Dickie on their way to the Top 14 with a host of others, Borthwick needs to negotiate to ensure that French-bound players have suitable and pre-agreed release clauses in their contracts.
Some may argue that players make their bed and therefore should lie in it, but the simple truth is that the Premiership clubs have failed to offer the financial platform needed to secure the future of some very short careers and England players should not be penalised for that. It’s time to recognise that – and as a by-product, allow players to bloom in a more physical standard of rugby – something much closer to Test level – and that means that the coach and the RFU relax the regulations and assist with contractual negotiations to ensure a mutually beneficial arrangement.
With regards to Mercer, England are desperate for back-rows that offer complete skillsets, including those of lineout jumping. He and Alex Dombrandt are good enough to sew up the number eight berth for many seasons to come and, as a matter of urgency, Borthwick needs to ensure that Mercer is in his 36-man squad come January 16.
Jones spent a lot of last year trying to work out the balance of his back five when Courtney Lawes wasn’t available to fulfil the role of his massive back-row jumper, a situation compounded by concurrent injuries to Ollie Chessum and to Dombrandt, both of whom add that lineout balance to the back-row, something that neither Billy Vunipola or Sam Simmonds can really influence. No Test side goes in without at least two primary jumpers in their back-row and England need to find flankers other than Lawes who can compete power-for-power with the likes of Franco Mostert, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Marcos Kremer, Michele Lamaro and Scott Barrett.
In the English game there’s a plethora of good sevens or six-and-a-halves available – Tom Curry, Ben Earl, Jack Willis, Tom Pearson and Lewis Ludlam – but none of those players offer primary lineout work as a superpower. At lock, Jonny Hill has had good moments but is prone to the occasional brain explosion, whilst David Ribbans offers huge athleticism if not quite the same level of tight power.
The key to finding the solution is to understand that these selections cannot be done in isolation; moreover it’s down to a formula of finding the right skillsets within the back five to complement each other. That means accepting that if Lawes is available, Ribbans offers a lot of pace and carry power, yet if Hill (or perhaps Harry Wells or Joe Launchbury, both Borthwick favourites) plays at tighthead lock, you will need more gas and handling skill at six. It isn’t a case of selection in positional isolation – this is all about a blend of skills.
Expect to see both Vunipola and Simmonds moved out to pasture and an approach of big powerful back-rows with lineout skills re-implemented. Ideally, a starting line-up of Maro Itoje, Ribbans, Lawes, Mercer and Curry looks perfectly balanced on paper, with Chessum, Willis, Earl and Dombrandt offering similar skillsets as the supporting cast.
Fix the style
Despite popular belief, England have almost an embarrassment of riches at fly-half and in the wider backline. At 10, any of George Ford, Marcus Smith or Owen Farrell offers a world class option, whilst in the back three, any three of 10 or 12 outside backs can offer blistering pace and finishing to burn.
The issues in recent times have been creating a balance of style that wins Test matches. Far too often, we’ve seen selections that do not mirror the systems used in the Premiership. When Farrell fires at 10, he plays with another playmaker such as Elliot Daly or Alex Goode alongside him; when Smith dominates matches for Quins, he operates with a massive gainline centre that gives him space behind to conduct his orchestra and in both cases, Jones asked his 10s to play in an unfamiliar system.
Given the lack of time Borthwick has, and bearing in mind he cannot rely upon Manu Tuilagi as that big crash centre, we believe he’ll go back to basics with either Farrell or Ford at 10, with a supporting cast around them that enhance their skills. Expect to see Henry Slade given an extended make or break run at 13, Daly somehow shoehorned back in (whether on wing or off bench in outside centre), Ollie Hassell-Collins, Anthony Watson and Harry Potter to offer directness and grit on the wing and the reintroduction of Dan Kelly into midfield to offer the best combination of bosh and bash of any English qualified centre in the Premiership.
We believe that the person that might lose out as a starter will be Smith – not because he’s lacking in any way, but because getting the right players around him will take a much bigger reset operation that using the familiarity of Ford or Farrell. Couple this with the fact that Smith off the bench is a mouth-watering prospect and we’re pretty sure that Borthwick’s approach will underline the simplicity and emotional connection we alluded to in the start of our thoughts.
In closing, don’t expect revolution from Borthwick and Sinfield; expect to see them take what they have, simplify it and refine it to make it fit for purpose over the next nine games. The timelines and risk profiles are too short for any other approach – once the World Cup is over, then there’s time for experimentation.
Someone close to the England side once observed of Borthwick’s tenure with Jones as “making sense of Eddie’s madness and brilliance” – this is precisely what the Red Rose need and you can bet your bottom dollar it’ll be what Borthwick will focus on.
James While’s England 23 v Scotland: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Dan Kelly, 11 Ollie Hassell-Collins, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Jack van Poortvliet, 8 Zach Mercer (or Alex Dombrandt), 7 Tom Curry, 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 David Ribbans, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Jamie George, 1 Ellis Genge
Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Val Rapava-Ruskin, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Ollie Chessum, 20 Ben Earl, 21 Alex Mitchell, 22 Marcus Smith, 23 Elliot Daly
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