England’s Ireland Catch-22: Face being exposed without old guard or excite fans with youth

George Furbank
There is a compelling case to retain George Furbank at full-back, continuity is essential to developing back-line cohesion - Mike Egerton/PA

The Catch-22 that Steve Borthwick faced prior to the Six Nations has become even catchier. England’s head coach was always between a rock and a hard place. Now, after defeat at Murrayfield, that space is even tighter. Suddenly, this feels like a defining week in his tenure.

A glance over to Wales accentuates Borthwick’s predicament. Warren Gatland wiped the selection slate cleaner before this tournament. In some respects, his hand was forced by a smaller player pool and other circumstances. But he also embraced a sense of revolution.

Wales have lost three out of three. Yet their campaign’s brighter aspects – the class of Cameron Winnett at full-back, an inspired Tommy Reffell, collective grit – have yielded optimism for the future and mitigated these results somewhat. Supporters seem sympathetic, on the whole. And patient.

Borthwick may have introduced five Test debutants, but an objective of gradual evolution is causing more agitation. Caution is not particularly sexy and, given there have been plenty of players over the age 30 – Joe Marler, Jamie George, Dan Cole, Danny Care, George Ford, Henry Slade, Elliot Daly – England fans were entitled to expect more conviction and accuracy from their side’s performances, regardless of teething problems with new tactical systems.

Dan Cole and Joe Marler
With plenty of veterans still involved, such as Dan Cole and Joe Marler, England fans would have expected more conviction - Steve Bardens/Getty Images

Of course, Borthwick was damned either way following an impressive World Cup. He would argue that his veterans were vital in steering England to wins over Italy and Wales. Had he omitted more elder statesmen and then lost either of those games, critics would have castigated him for discarding too much experience. England’s abundant options limit any comparisons with Wales here. Borthwick would never have been able to claim a free hit as easily as Gatland.

To borrow an observation of Jonny May, defeat in Scotland puts England under pressure. It was just their second loss in nine matches, but seemed more debilitating because of how the Calcutta Cup would have been targeted as a pivotal encounter from some distance away. That said, the 30-21 loss has been viewed in different ways. Sitting next to May recording The Good, The Bad and The Rugby Podcast, Mike Tindall labelled it as “the best game England have tried to play in four years.” That sums up an odd evening rather nicely. England looked assured for the first quarter, going 10-0 up, before shipping three tries. They were undone, in part, by reaching towards a more sophisticated approach. Unfortunately for Borthwick, that does not make the response any easier.

England’s selection at full-back is a fascinating pinch point. George Furbank was picked over Freddie Steward, partly, to enhance the attack. It was thought that England needed points to prevail at Murrayfield. Fast forward a fortnight, and surely they must score tries to oust Ireland? If backline continuity is the best way to develop cohesion, there will be a compelling case to retain Furbank. Dropping him again would hardly scream clarity, which was supposed to be Borthwick’s calling card, even if Steward slipped out and back into the side during the World Cup knockouts last year.

England have managed to stifle and frustrate Ireland, leaning upon a strong set piece and energetic defence, for long periods of the last two Six Nations meetings between the sides. However, aided by red cards, Andy Farrell’s men have won with a degree of inevitability on both occasions, by 17 points in 2022 and 13 points in 2023. England registered a grand total of two line-breaks across those matches, with Ireland racking up 18. Another battling yet blunt display in defeat could not be interpreted as meaningful progress.

Alex Mitchell will be available after defying the prognosis of initial scans on his knee injury. Marcus Smith, seemingly primed for an integral role in this Six Nations before his calf complaint, is also in contention. Whether they start or not, these two half-backs can lift a Twickenham crowd, and a wider supporter base, that will be desperate to see verve and ambition; not just doggedness.

Besides a stick-or-twist team selection, there is onus on Borthwick to get other areas of preparation right. Can he instil confidence by highlighting the positive facets of England’s effort against Scotland – a slick first-phase try, some regathered kicks, solid scrummaging, decent phase defence – and developing those while improving what let them down? Does he announce his line-up to the wider squad earlier to alleviate the anxiety that May talked about?

How do England avoid tensing up and growing timid, as they seemed to against France 12 months ago? Players have continually promised that their blitz defence will keep rushing all tournament. Fans would forgive a few mistakes if the attack was as intrepid when opportunities to pull the trigger arise. In fairness, until the late caterpillar rucks when urgency deserted them, England did not look afraid to lose at Murrayfield. They have a tough fixture schedule for the rest of 2024, including three meetings with New Zealand. Add courage and persistence to the list of essential attributes.

Bookies have Ireland as 11-point favourites. Most expect the green Grand Slam procession to take another step. As for Borthwick, he has to produce a convincing performance from the Catch-22 that confronts him.