England: What went well, what went badly and what they need to change for the Six Nations clash with Italy
The Steve Borthwick era got off to a disappointing start as England once again failed to reclaim the Calcutta Cup following a 29-23 defeat at Twickenham.
For the third year in a row, Gregor Townsend’s men were triumphant over the Auld Enemy, leaving Borthwick with much to ponder.
It was not all doom and gloom for the Red Rose, however, as we delve into their performance against the Scots and what they can improve on for their next Six Nations game with Italy.
Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell axis
Contrary to popular opinion, we saw a vast improvement in their partnership. For starters, they combined in tandem to help dominate territory and possession, using their respective boots to put England into the right positions. Once in the opposition half, Smith and Farrell then dovetailed nicely to bring their forward runners into the game and stress the Scottish defence.
The first two tries came from that combination as their playmaking capabilities allowed England to manipulate the space for Max Malins to go over twice. Of course, it was not perfect and it is still a work-in-progress, but it is not the disaster many are making it out to be. Overall, there were very promising signs from the two and we hope it is given another chance this weekend.
Whether Borthwick wants to follow that path is another question. Prior to Henry Slade’s injury, it seemed like the head coach wanted to play Farrell at 10, with the Exeter Chiefs man operating as the other playmaker. However, with Slade out of the Scotland clash, they needed an extra distributor which meant pairing Smith with Farrell. England’s boss may therefore ditch it for the upcoming encounter but we think that would be the wrong move, for now.
As intimated, England controlled the kicking battle, putting Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg under significant pressure for most of the match. Smith and Farrell were excellent in manipulating the space in Scotland’s backfield and getting the Red Rose on the front foot.
It was not perfect, with Jack van Poortvliet’s box-kicking not up to its usual standard, as they failed to put the Scottish catchers under enough duress, but the use of the boot was generally impressive from England and showed how it can be used as an attacking weapon.
Ellis Genge taking more carrying responsibility
We’ve always wondered why the prop hadn’t been more noticeable in the loose in the past, generally being used sparingly as a carrier under Eddie Jones, so it was fascinating to see him be England’s go-to man last weekend. It was effective too as he gave the Red Rose a supply of front foot ball thanks to his charges across the gain line.
Borthwick stated that he wanted players replicating their club game at international level and, quite frankly, Genge did that. The loosehead has improved immensely as a scrummager, but his biggest impact has always come with ball in hand and it was good to see him take much more responsibility in that facet of the game.
A small step forward from November
The nature of top level sport is that England were never really that far off under Jones, but being even three per cent away from the best is a big margin and ultimately people lost confidence in his ability to get this side ready for the Rugby World Cup. Borthwick was pretty damning after the match on Saturday by stating they ‘weren’t good at anything’ during the Autumn Nations Series and he was right.
You could – and can – see the potential there but every match in 2022 was a disappointment for the Red Rose, even when they won. There has been no real development in the past two years – improving those little things that would get them closer to the likes of Ireland and France – so it was therefore refreshing to see some changes which made a bit of a difference.
There was a good and pretty effective attacking structure, which will only get better as they spend more time training and playing, while the pieces could well be starting to come into place elsewhere.
Maro Itoje’s form is a concern but the front five, especially when you add Dan Cole into the mix, has a good look to it, while the back-row has plenty of options, even if there are doubts around the combinations. If Borthwick can get that pack right in this tournament, that will be a huge plus heading into the rest of the year.
As Wales showed with Mike Forshaw, who were dominated by Ireland, it may take a few weeks for the English rearguard to get up to speed. Usually, it is the attack which takes the longest time to get right, but for Borthwick’s men it was the defensive side of the game which was of most concern.
Individually, there were a number of errors, which suggests that the players haven’t quite got to grips with Kevin Sinfield’s system just yet. Especially in the final quarter, when Scotland saw opportunities to go from deep, they were caught out wide on occasion, while their one-on-one tackling wasn’t up to scratch.
There were simply too many missed tackles. That could be down to individual or system errors, but what is obvious is that England were not comfortable without the ball.
The two props, Mako Vunipola and Cole, made a good initial impression in the set-piece, but they looked all at sea when the game really opened up late on. Vunipola didn’t do anything to convince us that he is currently at the level required to play Test rugby, while Cole is very much a starter.
It would be tough on Kyle Sinckler, who was very good on Saturday, but if someone is going to be making an impact later in the game, it is not the 35-year-old Leicester man. It means that Borthwick may take Sinckler out of the XV for the Italy encounter.
Equally, Ben Youngs was poor when he came on with his up and under in the 73rd minute going far too long and allowing Scotland to attack from deep. The visitors, with Russell to the fore, were outstanding in taking the opportunity, but Youngs’ execution and decision-making was unacceptable from an experienced player.
Elsewhere, Ben Earl did some good things and deserves another shot in the 23 but Ollie Lawrence and Anthony Watson were not given enough time to make an impression.
A constant issue during the latter stages of Jones’ tenure and it was still not quite right on Saturday. The lineout, with only two out-and-out jumpers, was under constant pressure, which meant they had to simplify it later in the game. Ollie Chessum was good at the front but Scotland had done their job by disrupting it at the middle and back, forcing the hosts to make changes.
As for the scrum, it was pretty even in the first half but, for an England side which will have ambitions of winning the World Cup, they will get monstered by the better packs. There’s still nothing to suggest they can match France and particularly South Africa in this area. There were also restart errors, which will need to be tidied up, and a maul which wasn’t a dominant force, although there were moments in the second period where they started moving forward.
Borthwick filled his pack with carriers and, to a degree, they had success, with Chessum, Genge, Sinckler and Lewis Ludlam all effective – if not totally dominant – in this facet of the game. Presumably, it was to make up for the lack of physicality behind the scrum, but this clash showed that England need a presence in the backline.
Joe Marchant has his qualities but he struggled to impose himself in the game and Scotland contained him relatively comfortably. Freddie Steward is big and strong, but perhaps doesn’t have the same dynamism as someone like Ollie Lawrence, Manu Tuilagi or, outside of the squad, Joe Cokanasiga.
Midfield ballast to come in
If Borthwick keeps Smith and Farrell as the playmaking axis then Lawrence should come in alongside them. The centre is quick, strong and dynamic, and perfect for this England team. He is also in exceptional form for Bath and is good both sides of the ball, with him becoming a significant breakdown threat this year.
The 23-year-old also has the qualities to feature at 12 should the head coach go with Farrell and Slade, but Tuilagi would ultimately be the favoured choice to come back in. Either way, the head coach needs to bring in more physicality at centre.
Dan Cole to start
Pretty simple really. If Cole’s in the squad, he should start. Sinckler can provide the impact and dynamism from the replacements after the 35-year-old has given England a good set-piece platform in the first half.
He has been in great form for Leicester Tigers and that scrummaging quality was evident when he came on against Scotland, but his weaknesses in open field was exploited by the Scots when legs got weary in the English defence.
Jack Willis to provide back five balance
Ben Curry is another to receive unfair criticism but his initial inclusion was a surprise to us when they had the outstanding Jack Willis in the squad. The Toulouse man brings the same breakdown threat as Curry but he is also a stronger carrier and, if his work in France is anything to go by, a lineout option.
He is obviously not a Courtney Lawes in that area but his selection could ease the pressure on Maro Itoje and Chessum, and provide some balance to the back-row. Elsewhere in the back-row, Ludlam impressed and, although Alex Dombrandt wasn’t at his best, he deserves another shot.
Think about the bench make-up
Vunipola was fortunate to be included in the squad in the first place and his efforts last Saturday were pretty inauspicious, so Bevan Rodd deserves to be involved in the 23, but he has been omitted from the 29 for the Italy game. Rodd or Vunipola wouldn’t be our choice, that’s the in-form Val Rapava-Ruskin, but with the Gloucester powerhouse not in the group, Borthwick has gone for the Saracens player.
The other reserve front-rowers should be Jack Walker – basically the only other fit hooker – and Sinckler, with David Ribbans the lock replacement, performing the role he did so well in the Autumn Nations Series. Earl remains in the 20 jersey and Alex Mitchell will be given a chance as the reserve scrum-half with Youngs dropped.
Planet Rugby’s England squad to face Italy: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Max Malins, 13 Ollie Lawrence, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Ollie Hassell-Collins, 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Jack van Poortvliet, 8 Alex Dombrandt, 7 Jack Willis, 6 Lewis Ludlam, 5 Ollie Chessum, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Jamie George, 1 Ellis Genge
Replacements: 16 Jack Walker, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 David Ribbans, 20 Ben Earl, 21 Alex Mitchell, 22 Henry Slade, 23 Henry Arundell
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