Six Nations: Steve Borthwick must heed warnings from France flaying as England brutally exposed
There is a segment on BBC Radio 5 Live’s show Fighting Talk called Defend the Indefensible, which did not air on Saturday due to the Gary Lineker row.
England head coach Steve Borthwick took up the baton instead, with a post-match press conference where whatever he said could not justify the 53-10 shaming at the hands of France. England’s record home defeat, their third-heaviest of all time, will leave scars.
The paying public voted with their feet, as half of Twickenham had left before full-time. Those still in the stands come the final whistle were either booing or elated French fans.
England had not stepped back in solidarity with Lineker, but their performance at times appeared a downing of tools. Borthwick’s vain attempt at justification went as far as pointing again to the sorry state that England were in when he replaced Eddie Jones in December. The new boss insisted the scale of England’s loss only mirrors the chasm between England and the world’s top Test teams.
That statement is at odds with the pronouncements of progress across the weeks and months since Borthwick took the helm. The gap between England and France and Ireland is clear, but that should in no way lead to a record Twickenham loss, especially when Les Bleus’ largest previous winning margin at HQ was eight points.
What Borthwick inherited was clearly not his fault, but what happens now is entirely on the 43-year-old ex-England skipper. Responsibility and culpability come with the territory.
This must surely now be the last time that his response to a heavy defeat is to cite the enormity of the challenge to reverse fortunes. No one in the set-up can need more evidence, especially when for 80 minutes on Saturday it was rammed down Twickenham throats.
Where France were masterful, England were ragged, soft and imprecise. Where Antoine Dupont skinned Maro Itoje off one breakdown, then boomed a left-footed 50-22 off the next, Jack van Poortvliet tried to set up a caterpillar ruck that was upended, then shanked a box kick.
England’s defence had no structure, with players bunching and again unsure of their remit. France, in contrast, fielded two centres in Jonathan Danty and Gael Fickou who defended with zeal and shape, and rucked like back-row forwards. France shattered England’s attempts at tackle-area control, removing any notion of quick or even stable ball, striking a dagger into Borthwick’s early blueprint.
Borthwick will go back to the drawing board ahead of Saturday’s Dublin assignment, and everything needs major attention. One clear warning that England must heed: play like this at the World Cup, and Argentina will thump them in their tournament opener on September 9.
The clear lessons that emanate from this flaying are manifest, and all circle back to the fact that decisions have consequences. Thibaud Flament’s journey from the ranks of Loughborough University’s Fifth XV to the riches of his two-try Twickenham turn underscores a scope and supremacy of system sorely lacking in England.
England’s World Cup finalists of 2019 owed much of their development to Stuart Lancaster. The next wave took far too long to emerge. Borthwick could only marvel at how France have used their World Cup cycle.
Under Jones, top players were not upskilled, nor were hopefuls promoted quickly enough. England also suffered from the loss of visionary age-group coaches John Fletcher and Peter Walton in 2018. A pattern of neglect is finally being remedied, but, for now, the damage done is clear to see.