Let us be clear, England have not been nearly convincing enough to be considered among the favourites for the World Cup despite winning both of their opening pool matches.
And yet, it is possible that they are not quite receiving due credit for their performances thus far. After two rounds, comprising ultimately comfortable wins over Argentina and Japan, a report card should give them a strong pass.
Here is the rationale, considering the ugly as well as the impressive aspects to date.
Although his side’s displays across four warm-up games were compromised by their conditioning schedule, Steve Borthwick would not have envisaged meeting as many setbacks. Injuries to Anthony Watson, Jack van Poortvliet and Tom Curry – even Luke Cowan-Dickie before that – and suspensions for Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola would have caused significant disruption to selection plans.
Then, within the first three minutes of their opener against Argentina, Curry’s red card threatened further chaos. Instead, England rolled with that punch and pulled tighter. After the Pumas were beaten with a defiant and crafty effort, Japan posed unexpected challenges. Jamie Joseph suggested that the Brave Blossoms surprised England with scrummaging solidity and unorthodox, short kicks, including an impish overhead hook from Yatuka Nagare. Japan kicked 37 times in total, teasing their opponents out of position, and defended stoutly.
Weather has been another variable. In the early hours of Monday morning, it was still 23 degrees Celsius at Stade de Nice. The night-time humidity has been stifling because an abundance of moisture makes catching and passing more difficult, especially under pressure from busy defences. Similar conditions governed the 2019 tournament in Japan, which could prove to be one benefit of Borthwick packing his squad with veterans from that World Cup.
Finally, as this next section explores, England seem to be reacting smartly to referees. Ben Earl was collared twice by Nika Amashukeli in the opening 22 minutes of the win over Japan. The flanker explained that England decided to rely on line-speed, rather than breakdown spoiling that would risk infringements, to disrupt the attack thereafter.
Kicking and line-out work connected
Regardless of entertainment value, there can no longer be any doubt as to England’s tactical identity. And rugby union is a sport in which a blend of conviction and fitness goes a long way.
In essence, the sport is about moving forward by any means necessary – and all metres are valuable. England out-kicked Argentina by 1,074m to 852m and then Japan by 1,177m to 938m. In their second game, they also won the running tally by 516m to 334m. Argentina carried more than them (308m to 233m), yet England only conceded seven penalties to 13 from the frantic Pumas. George Ford’s drop goals helped, too.
Discipline takes different forms. England have conceded just 13 penalties across 160 minutes, which is a good return. As importantly, they have been persistent and trusting with their strategy. The line-out is clearly an invaluable component here, as one would expect from an outfit fronted by Borthwick, who has been humble enough to enlist extra set-piece guidance from former mentee George Kruis.
Courtney Lawes has complemented the lock pairing of Maro Itoje and Ollie Chessum, giving Jamie George a trio of jumpers with which to establish a reliable platform. England may have lost three of 13 throws against Japan, having secured all seven against Argentina, but did maul powerfully in Nice.
On rival throws, following a trend set during the warm-up Tests, they have been excellent. The Pumas botched four of 15 line-outs before Japan surrendered four of 12. An England steal led to Lewis Ludlam’s try. Itoje rose to compete and Chessum hoovered up at the tail. Moments earlier, Ford had rolled an intelligent chip into touch. Line-out and kicking strategies are inextricable from one another.
A defensive revival
Given the disarray of the warm-up loss to Fiji, which was blighted by glaring individual errors, the response of Kevin Sinfield’s defence has been extraordinary. Conceding one try in two matches commands respect and two areas stand out. The first is decision-making around the breakdown, with Lawes and Joe Marler forcing pivotal turnovers close to their own try-line during the first two outings. The second is palpable desire.
Joe Marchant capped the win over Japan by stretching over to score the bonus-point try. Much earlier, in the 12th minute, the outside centre drifted across and tackled two attackers, Jone Naikabalu and then Lomano Lemeki. Marchant dragged down Naikabalu and bounced off the floor as an offload was swung to Lemeki, setting a tone. Japan stretched Sinfield’s system, yet England bent without breaking. They scrambled hard and scrapped for one another.
Line-ups and replacements vindicated
Under Borthwick, Leicester Tigers lived an ‘each game as it comes’ mantra like very few teams can. Their head coach would tailor the approach to each opponent and players retained an unwavering, week-to-week focus. Borthwick has judged the order of his match-day squads nicely thus far and he timed his replacements well at the weekend.
Dan Cole justified his start against Argentina and Marler did the same against Japan. England’s powerful bench was emptied from the 50-minute mark in Nice. The carrying of Vunipola, Ellis Genge and Ollie Lawrence proved tough for a tired Japan to contain, while Ben Youngs and Marcus Smith, the latter at full-back, injected verve. The set-piece only grew in influence as well. Borthwick had identified that the final quarter would be decisive, and acted accordingly. Players say he gives clarity to their roles within squads. That definitely seemed to be the case.
Ben Earl arrives
Ford, Lawes, Itoje and George have been vital for England but one man is edging out in front as a star performer. Having waited more than three years between his Test debut and a maiden senior start for England, Earl has rattled off five in succession and looks right at home. Measured menace in defence complements the outstanding strengths of his game; athleticism and intuition in attack. Japan was his chance to show more of those assets. He packed down at the base of the scrum, despite wearing seven on his back, and migrated to the touchlines to give England additional zip out wide.
Vunipola’s introduction appeared to free him up further, although that could have been because Earl grew and grew as the match continued. The 25-year-old amassed 76 metres from 15 carries and appears to be in exceptional, explosive shape. Aled Walters and Tom Tombleson have the squad in fine fettle from a conditioning standpoint and Earl is top of the class. What happens when Curry returns from suspension? Earl surely stays put.
Missed chances persist
England look like a team that would be difficult to haul in once they have gone in front, because they can constrict teams. Simultaneously, however, they are struggling to build decent leads because try-scoring opportunities are being botched. Freddie Steward spilled at close range in the first three minutes on Saturday and on the stroke of half-time, with England 10-9 ahead, they opted to go to touch from a kickable penalty.
Though their maul was flexing its muscle, England ran a peel move and Earl popped a pass towards George. The hooker evidently expected the ball to go to Ludlam instead, and fumbled when it struck him in the face. On both of these occasions, England added three points quickly, yet there is much to be said for scoring in fives and sevens. As it happened, Japan could stay close and were only 13-12 behind until Lawes was aware enough to capitalise from Marler’s header in the 55th minute.
England manufactured eight clean breaks, which should have been sufficient to register more tries with clearer thinking out wide and in open space. Elliot Daly was bundled into touch at the start of the second period after slick interplay between Kyle Sinckler, Ford, Lawes and Earl had put him clear. Alex Mitchell was scampering up-field calling for a chip into unguarded space. Against better sides, England cannot afford to be wasteful.
Borthwick admitted that England’s cohesion developed over the course of their win over Japan, which is a different way of saying that they started in a very clunky manner. The sound of travelling fans booing a second-half kick from Mitchell reflected a frustration with the territory-first game plan, which probably passed from patience into bloody-mindedness at times. Sometimes you wonder whether the practice of tactical kicking should hire a PR agency.
France also bang the ball long and attempt to gorge on the opportunities given to them by their defence. The difference is that they have intoxicating individual attackers like Antoine Dupont, Damian Penaud and Thomas Ramos, as well as greater cohesion and more intent to play to space earlier in an attacking sequence. For England, those bolt-ons are a work in progress. They were more ambitious in the second half against Japan, with Ford’s deft chip for Jonny May, from his own 22, allowing the latter to canter clear. Here, they recover a Ben Youngs box-kick and spread the ball to the other side of the field through Earl, Smith, Ford and Lawrence:
Thought this was a significant moment. Shows England can be a bit more ambitious early in an attacking sequence after recovering Youngs' kick (a la France). Earl > Smith > Ford > Lawrence and the ball is across the pitch into space. This was how Tigers developed, too. pic.twitter.com/BaHfM67Bif
— Charlie Morgan (@CharlieFelix) September 18, 2023
A lively attack breaches the Japan 22, with Smith picking up another touch thanks to his intuitive support running. Leicester developed in a similar way during the Borthwick years, with a Champions Cup triumph in Clermont in April 2022 a great example of their best transition attack. Despite losing Guy Porter to a red card, Tigers plundered five tries with just 54 rucks worth of possession.
England are easy to mock at the moment and their achievements in France have been heavily caveated. First, Argentina’s shortcomings were highlighted. Next, it has been stressed that Japan have endured an underwhelming cycle and are currently ranked 14th in the world. Cynics wonder how badly England will be beaten when they play a good team. All the while, though, Borthwick is making them harder to beat. They face Chile in Lille this Saturday before a sterner encounter against Samoa. Then, they hope, the knockouts. And who knows from there?
Coming down the pipe for Borthwick is a pivotal decision on how to balance his backline when Farrell comes back. Currently, with a midfield of Manu Tuilagi and Marchant in front of Steward at full-back, there is a concerningly heavy onus on Daly’s distribution. Borthwick will gather the information, put a plan in place and ensure his players work hard to implement it. That much is for certain.