England seek evolution not revolution behind six leaders after encouraging World Cup

England will feel hopeful about their future after finishing third at the World Cup  (Getty Images)
England will feel hopeful about their future after finishing third at the World Cup (Getty Images)

It ended as it began for England, seven weeks of French adventure bookended by wins over Argentina. If their last tango in Paris was occasionally executed with the elegance and elan of a tipsy wedding guest with two left feet, then they can take heart from having again found a way to victory.

England’s players will return to club duty having won six of their seven Rugby World Cup matches. Third spot may ultimately be a disappointment for the squad given how close they came to shocking South Africa, but it is a considerably higher finish than some would have feared.

It didn’t all go well, certainly on Friday night in a scrappy game that England did not quite manage to throw away. But an experience of finals rugby should be of value to those experiencing their first taste of a World Cup - they are hardly the first group of English youngsters to come back from two months on the continent bronzed but a little bit bruised.

“Playing finals games at World Cups is important,” said head coach Steve Borthwick afterwards. “In the last two World Cups, this group of players have played six finals games and won four of them. We want to be in the final and winning the gold medal. That wasn’t to be, but having finals experience has been important for this squad.”

Courtney Lawes and Ben Youngs have confirmed their Test retirements and Jonny May has conceded that this is probably the end of the road for him, too. Dan Cole has restored his international reputation but is 36; his prop chum Joe Marler may also consider his future.

Ben Youngs has retired from Test rugby (Getty Images)
Ben Youngs has retired from Test rugby (Getty Images)

“Naturally at the end of World Cups, there are always some players that decide their time as a current England player will come to an end,” Borthwick explained. “But the age profile of the squad is strong.

“If you look at the semi-finals last week, we had seven players 25 or under, more than any other team in the semi-finals. And there’s a number of exciting young players that didn’t make the 33-man squad but were part of the preparations. As I look forward, there’s excitement about those players.”

It is likely to be evolution rather than revolution for England. Borthwick will still be able to call upon the some of his senior leadership group, with Owen Farrell, George Ford, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Ellis Genge and Tom Curry offering good grounding to move into the next cycle. Ben Earl has put his hand up for consideration for a greater role after an impressive tournament on and off the pitch.

Ben Earl produced an excellent series of performances (Getty Images)
Ben Earl produced an excellent series of performances (Getty Images)

But Borthwick will recognise areas of real concern. If Marler and Cole depart, England would appear to be lacking in junior scrum doctors. Gloucester’s Val Rapava-Ruskin has impressed at club level but is not necessarily a favourite of the England head coach. Cole’s mentoring work in continuing to bring through Joe Heyes may be the quickest route to scrum-time tighthead solidity, though the lack of trust shown in Theo Dan and Jack Walker makes Luke Cowan-Dickie’s return at hooker vital.

“We know that the distribution positionally of those [young] players isn’t necessarily even,” Borthwick admitted. “We know there are some areas we’re a bit thinner than others. I need to make sure we’re doing some work and finding some depth in those key positions.”

The emergence of Ollie Chessum and George Martin at lock to complement Itoje has been valuable, with Hugh Tizard of Saracens a name to monitor, while there are ample options on the openside even if Jack Willis is now unavailable. Where England are short is in the long-limbed blindside role that Lawes has fulfilled so brilliantly over the last couple of years. It may be that one of Chessum and Martin, most likely the former, is deployed one row further back given the importance Borthwick places on the lineout.

Dave Ribbans (left) will depart but England look reasonably well stocked at lock (Getty Images)
Dave Ribbans (left) will depart but England look reasonably well stocked at lock (Getty Images)

Earl has earned a run at number eight but this could be a time to move on from Billy Vunipola, who lacks the efficacy of old. Tom Willis and Zach Mercer are too good not to be looked at again while Chandler Cunningham-South - who has joined Harlequins after the demise of London Irish - is understood to be of real interest, with his ability to offer lock cover useful.

Scrum half and fly half appear decently stocked but the centre situation requires a revamp. Joe Marchant elected to take a contract in France when on the outside looking in under Eddie Jones; Will Joseph, Marchant’s direct replacement in the centre/wing role at Harlequins, could return to the reckoning. Manu Tuilagi has stayed fit throughout this tournament but England will not want to become reliant on a player with increasing miles on his legs. Ollie Lawrence’s development is key; Tommy Freeman’s reinvention as an outside centre at Northampton is fascinating. Don’t write off Henry Slade, either.

There could be coaching changes, too. There is uncertainty over the future of Kevin Sinfield with Felix Jones, the former Ireland international who has been a key part of South Africa’s coaching team, on the way. England may still look to add to their coaching unit – Richard Wigglesworth has performed an attacking coach role admirably but Borthwick may still recognise a chance to look for fresh input on that front. If there are tweaks, there will be a need to hit the ground running given England are likely to assemble only a week or so before their first Six Nations fixture against Italy on 3 February.

There is doubt over the future of England’s defence coach Kevin Sinfield (PA Wire)
There is doubt over the future of England’s defence coach Kevin Sinfield (PA Wire)

“This team is going to be constantly evolving and constantly trying to get better at everything it does,” Farrell said. “Obviously Steve is going to do a thorough review of what we need to do and that’s going to be ongoing. There will be a plan, especially from the staff but the players deal with what’s in front of them. Right now, the players will enjoy tonight and go back to our clubs next week. The best thing we can do for that next World Cup cycle is play well for our clubs. I’m sure the boys will do that.”

Possible England team for the 2024 Six Nations

1 Ellis Genge, 2 Jamie George, 3 Will Stuart; 4 Maro Itoje, 5 George Martin; 6 Ollie Chessum, 7 Tom Curry, 8 Ben Earl; 9 Jack van Poortvliet, 10 Owen Farrell; 11 Elliot Daly, 12 Ollie Lawrence, 13 Henry Slade, 14 Anthony Watson; 15 Freddie Steward.

Replacements: 16 Theo Dan, 17 Bevan Rodd, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Chandler Cunningham-South, 20 Tom Pearson; 21 Alex Mitchell, 22 Marcus Smith, 23 Tommy Freeman.