Six Nations report card: Inconsistent England still a work in progress under new regime

England Six Nations report card image 2023.jpg Credit: Alamy
England Six Nations report card image 2023.jpg Credit: Alamy

After two rounds of the Six Nations, the competition takes a break, allowing us to take stock and provide a report card for each team. Next up, it’s England.

Despite the fanfare and despite the recalibration of expectation, the fundamental fact is that Steve Borthwick’s England have had a rather nonplussing start to their 2023 Six Nations campaign.

Once again, Scotland, a nation with one/sixth of England’s club and player resources, came and picked England apart in the opening match of the season 29-23, winning collisions, defending like demons and producing a finishing display with efficiency that the hosts could only dream of.

Words like ‘rebuild’ ‘new era’, and ‘overhauling’ were bandied about like confetti, until the Scots gave England a lesson in the reality of the quality of their rugby.

Sure, hosting Italy a week later saw something of a turn-around, but at the cost of dropping Marcus Smith and pressing ahead with an Owen Farrell-led attack, which long-term may not be the best policy. Against Italy, a side that had one less day’s recovery, that worked to the tune of a 31-14 win but even then the much improved Azzurri won the second half of that match 14-12, and England needed a card to Lorenzo Cannone to ignite their first half scoring, something that won’t be overlooked by Borthwick.

For some nations, the performance so far might be considered par or just below; for a country with England’s resources, the continued failure against sides at home that they should put away is of huge concern.

Best player

Lewis Ludlam has always been considered by some quarters to be some sort of makeshift compromise in the back-row due to his huge versatility. Yet he consistently makes the most post-contact metres of any player in the Premiership, his set-piece is outstanding, and above all, he plays with energy and dynamism from the first to the last minute.

In Borthwick’s lineout plan which is broadly based upon a five-man structure around a hinge player he plays a key role as the acting nine or at times, third jumper, making decisions as when to drive the maul or when to dummy the maul and breakaway away at pace.

His versatility can be underlined by his match stats in different contexts; against Scotland with England enjoying 70% possession, he carried 18 times for 104 metres but against Italy in the second half he made 17 tackles as the Azzurri worked off 67% possession for the second period.

With Tom Curry impressing all that saw him on his comeback for Sale against Northampton and with Alex Dombrandt not at the top of his game, expect to see Ludlam’s versatility at number eight in the forthcoming weeks.

A shout out to Ollie Chessum too, who has pushed Ludlam all the way for this accolade and but for a couple of key errors against Scotland, might well have taken the nod.

Unsung star

Max Malins doesn’t ever quite get the appreciation he deserves outside of Saracen’s StoneX Stadium. There’s faster wings, there are more physical wings and there are more elusive wings, but few have the all-round game, rugby IQ and sheer appetite for work that Malins consistently displays.

A high and complete skill set with cricketer’s hands underlines Malins’ game; happy chasing restarts (he’s won four so far this tournament) always looking to come off his wing, his club relationship with Farrell is vitally important for England and together they can work a variety of attacking plays – whether they be aerial kicking, extra carrier coming around on the loop or more traditional wing one-on-one work.

There’s a reason for Malins’ scoring consistency for Saracens – his pure rugby intelligence, honed by playing predominantly as a 10 or 15 for a lot of his formative years. A few eyebrows were raised when he was picked over the likes of Cadan Murley and Anthony Watson, but so far he’s been one of England’s standouts, in a very quiet and understated way.

Best moment

Jack Willis’ return to the white shirt seems to have been a long time coming. His injury hit career might have seen him win 50 caps by now, but sadly most of his rugby life seems to have been spent in rehab of one form or another.

His form for Toulouse has been dazzling, so much so that the French side, for the first time ever, have reconfigured their back-row structure from the favoured Gallic ‘left and right’ flank to the more traditional method of ‘openside and blindside’. As a result, Borthwick gave him his start against Italy and Willis replied by thundering over in the 13th minute and putting in a thundering performance all around the pitch.

His try might not have been as eye catching as some, but in terms of the hopes of English fans, no moment was bigger than seeing the openside fly over for his third test try.

Biggest weapons

It says something about the state of English rugby right at this moment in time that some serious thinking is required to work out what the best artillery in the English weapons store is.

Ollie Lawrence has certainly straightened up the English midfield, working well with Farrell to get some direction and bite back in attack, whilst Farrell’s situational awareness and temperament continues to impress.

In the pack, the workrate of Chessum, Genge, Willis and Ludlam has been worthy, with all four players adding credit to their personal report card.

Structurally, England’s lineout has performed well enough, but scrummage and breakdown work hasn’t ever been anything more than par at any point.

But one quality is shining out above all else – there’s a spirit of honesty, graft and persistence in this side that looked lacking in the last year or so under Eddie Jones – that spirit can take you a long way in rugby during periods of change, but in order to cement those worthy emotions, results and performance are absolutely key and thus far, England are still playing catch-up.

Biggest shortcomings

England are maximising a lot of the talent they have but there’s still a number of ‘legacy’ players that perhaps are in the team on reputation over and above performance and form.

Starting up front, the continued selection of Mako Vunipola over and above Val Rapava-Ruskin and Joe Marler defies any form of rugby logic given Vunipola’s complete lack of impact at scrum-time. Behind, Maro Itoje, a world class player, is a shadow of his 2021 self and Nick Isiekwe has failed to grab his chances; with David Ribbans on fire for Northampton Saints, it seems only a matter of time before we see a change up here.

In the backline, whilst we saw an improvement against Italy, 13 remains an issue where Henry Slade again treated us to a contradictory cornucopia of exquisite passing followed immediately by some wild handling that saw balls being thrown at support runners’ feet on several occasions and a complete lack of physicality in carry. Once again, his defence was lamentable, missing four straight tackles out of eight attempts, but with Manu Tuilagi now unavailable Slade might just have yet another reprieve to continue a learning journey that now spans over 50 caps without ever producing the performances his billing deserves. Put bluntly, he needs to fulfil his undoubted promise.

However, despite some of the form issues above, England’s biggest shortcoming is they are not winning the overall gainline battle. Against Scotland, the sheer amount of carrying for such little return was astonishing, with England completely unable to get through, around or over the visitor’s defence – however, with Farrell and Lawrence now running England’s 10/12 channel, they will hope to improve in this area in a week’s time.


It’s safe to say that England have shuffled one apologetic step forward. It isn’t quite a stride, but nevertheless, a style of play is slowly emerging, one based upon the strengths of the Premiership and one that should see a return as players get used to it. Borthwick is also, by and large, picking the form Premiership players and attempting to use those assets in the most appropriate system; in short he’s not trying to create what he doesn’t have and he is sticking to a hardcore group of players with clarity over plan and selection.

But is it enough? Only time will tell and many still believe England are short of power and lacking in pace – in Test rugby you can play to one or the other strength, but to have neither is a concern. It may well be that in the future and without the time pressures of an imminent World Cup, we will see a team emerge around Marcus Smith, but for now, Borthwick is sticking to what he believes might work.


England were below par over the first two games – both at home against teams that were lower than they were in the rankings. They have vindicated concerns over lack of grunt and paucity of pace, but the passion and commitment shown in both matches cannot be underestimated, nor can the work the coaching team have to do to get them up to speed.

The next three rounds sees them travel to Cardiff and Dublin, with a home fixture against France sandwiched in between. To lose all three would be a disaster, and that’s precisely where the clever money will be betting, with Wales always a massive threat in Cardiff.

Can England beat France or Ireland? That’s debatable and whilst Les Bleus have looked flaky compared to 2022, Ireland on St Patrick’s Day potentially playing for a Grand Slam is simply a bridge too far for any team in the world, let alone the Red Rose.

Overall, we cannot score England more than a D+ grade based upon an expectation of winning both of their home openers and we’ll thrown in a ‘plus’ due to the obvious team spirit Borthwick has created. However, there’s three labours ahead of them that would task even Hercules himself and three straight losses for England is a distinct possibility. Much will depend on their clash with Wales and we feel they can take the spoils in Cardiff against their struggling hosts which will see them finishing in fourth place, with the same number of wins achieved as in 2021 and 2022.

In summary: Beware the Emperor’s New Clothes.

READ MORE: Six Nations report card: Italy show signs of improvement but not finished article yet

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