Steve Borthwick will find no positives in the wreckage of England’s destruction by phenomenal France
Owen Farrell paused to consider his answer, head bowed, eyes sunken, processing the trauma. The right words didn’t immediately come, because there weren’t any right words, really. Not after a record home defeat. Farrell has endured his fair share of lows in an England shirt – the early 2015 home World Cup exit, the Yokohama final defeat four years later – but never a home humiliation quite like this.
“Obviously the result and the scoreline are hugely disappointing for us,” Farrell said matter-of-factly, like an insurance appraiser poking a pen at a pile of rubble. “I don’t think you ever expect to lose like that at home as an England team. You don’t expect to lose like that anywhere as an England team. It is a tough one to reflect on.”
Right from the moment Charles Ollivon shuffled his arms through contact to free Thibaud Flament in the build-up to Thomas Ramos’ opening score, the tone was set, France’s livewires cutting through the evening squall in electric blue. With the heavens open, at times it really was rugby from the gods. With Antoine Dupont, a most magnificent petit general, guiding his troops, the visitors reached a level beyond even the one they had during their unbeaten 2022 to show England just how wide the chasm between the two sides currently is.
Fabien Galthie and his staff had targeted this game before the tournament, a chance to conquer the one territory as yet unclaimed since Galthie’s installation. This was not just a win but a ransacking, a statement performance to end a long run of French failures at Twickenham. Audacious flicks and hooker hitch-kicks inside their own 22 late on showed a side seeming to revel in their sheer superiority over an awestruck, awful England.
“We went into the game with a plan,” Steve Borthwick insisted afterwards. “We didn’t execute the plan and we weren’t allowed to have the ability to execute the plan against a very good French team.
“That team is putting finishing touches to their game, and that’s not where we are. We have a lot of work to do. I’ve been very clear there’s a gap and the job is try to close the gap as quickly as we can. I think you see how big the difference is.”
Out of the ruins left by the French wrecking balls Borthwick will pick few positives. England were brutalised, particularly at the breakdown. For all the pre-match focus on Marcus Smith’s chance to seize his fly-half opportunity, it was not a situation in which any 10 could have thrived. The demolition of the foundations Borthwick felt he had built over the last two rounds might prompt a selection rethink, with Farrell likely to return to the starting side, but quick fixes remain unapparent.
And to think there had been genuine hope in England’s camp during the week that they were well-equipped to match their visitors. The limit on England’s World Cup ambitions come the autumn is now surely the point at which they first meet one of the top four sides in the world – the gap is too vast, the time too short to close it.
It is little more than three years since England reached a World Cup final with a young side seemingly coming into their prime. Those that remain seem to have regressed since, while of the new faces, perhaps only Freddie Steward has become an international difference-maker.
The power disadvantage readily apparent during so many of England’s defeats over the last few years remains, and the England head coach will fear further psychological scarring if his squad suffer another chastening evening in Dublin next weekend. Ireland’s injury woes at Murrayfield preserve a glimmer of English hope, for a second year in a row, but a spoiling of the Grand Slam party on the final Saturday is surely beyond England.
Borthwick is uniquely versed in reacting to record Twickenham defeats. He was the beaten captain on England’s previous home nadir against South Africa in 2008. The next item on the agenda then, as now, was a meeting with the top-ranked side in the world seven days later. Perhaps the former lock will take some solace in the memory that England did improve after that Springboks thrashing – New Zealand’s winning margin a week later was only 26 points.
Italy rue missed opportunity against Wales
A much-needed win for Wales, preying on a loose performance from Italy in Rome. Italian captain Michele Lamaro suggested after the defeat that the sense of expectation had got to his side a little, who went away from the processes that had produced impressive performances against France and Ireland and instead started chasing the win. Lamaro lamented errors of “execution” after watching his side snatch at their chances.
The win should allow Warren Gatland a chance to develop some continuity. The Wales head coach must surely back the bulk of his starting side to go again for the first time this Championship, with Rhys Webb a standout on his return to the starting side and the second-row duo of Adam Beard and Dafydd Jenkins combining tidily in spaces open and tight.
Ireland find a way through adversity
Ireland showed all the qualities of a champion side at Murrayfield, triumphing through significant adversity. Lesser sides would have panicked having lost three forward starters inside half an hour and then a second hooker moments after half-time, but such is the cohesion and belief of this Irish squad that they simply sorted out a plan and finished the job.
Cian Healy and Josh van der Flier will take the plaudits for excelling as unlikely understudies, but it was the linking hands and intelligent injections of Mack Hansen that proved vital as Ireland set up a chance at a Six Nations clean sweep. The injuries will weaken them ahead of their encounter with England but the calm, clarity and command Ireland are playing with suggests they will find a way whatever the circumstances.