CHRIS FOY: Against all odds, England must break the cycle of failure and pound the Pumas at the World Cup… but based on the talk rather than the walk, that may be beyond them
- England begin their World Cup campaign against Argentina on Saturday night
- However, the stationary national team are lurching and wobbling into the fixture
- Six victories from their past 15 matches shows the extent of the fall from grace
This is supposed to be the culmination of a meticulous, four-year masterplan but instead, England are frantically scrambling to meet a high-stakes, high-performance deadline. Ready or not, here it comes.
In an era when Test rugby revolves around World Cup ‘cycles’, the national team are lurching and wobbling into their opener here with faulty gears and a broken chain. Momentum is vital at these junctures and England are stationary, at best.
Just think back to how this ill-fated cycle began, with a stirring mission statement by Eddie Jones in January 2020, when he said: ‘We want to be remembered as the greatest team that ever played rugby.’ But that grand relaunch quest proved predictably fanciful and England have gone on to fall so far that they aren’t even regarded by most people as the best team in Marseille on Saturday night.
So much for best-laid plans and an objective full of global, historical resonance. Having been World Cup finalists in Yokohama four years ago, the graph has been jolting down ever since. A Six Nations title in 2020 suggested the brave new era was up and running, but it gradually fell apart.
A record of six victories in England’s last 15 Championship fixtures is a stark indication of the glaring extent of their fall from grace. The team which came close to the summit in the Far East did not gradually evolve and improve as had been hoped.
As well as the usual disruption of injuries and disciplinary issues, Saracens’ relegation impacted on a senior core of the squad and some of them have never returned to those heights.
Along with the results slump, the incessant churn of coaches and staff continued, with the sudden departure of John Mitchell an especially notable setback for Jones. The Australian was clinging on, but the RFU hierarchy didn’t pull the trigger when they should have done, which meant when Jones was belatedly dismissed in December last year, the mess was big and the time for a salvage operation was too small.
Nevertheless, the emergency revival project has been a desperate letdown. Three defeats in the last Six Nations, three more in the summer, none of the clarity which was laid out as a primary aim and not the merest trace of any reason for optimism today.
Other than words, that is. There have been many optimistic words. England have spent a week in Le Touquet speaking with zeal about their renewed unity and intensity behind the scenes, but it was all in the aftermath of a shock home defeat by Fiji.
This is the problem; the declarations of belief and conviction have not been matched by actions – at least ones which are visible outside the walls of their fortified training compounds. The walk has not yet matched the talk.
It has all felt encouragingly believable until memories of jarring recent evidence come flooding back. Borthwick, his assistants and his players have been adamant that areas of their game have been improving, but which ones? It’s a serious question. The lineout remains pretty reliable, as it was before. Other than that… nothing.
The scrum has been a fading facet since Richard Cockerill left for Montpellier, ahead of this World Cup. The attack has been almost uniformly clunky and there was a six-hour match-time hiatus between tries by England backs, until Jonny May touched down in the defeat against Fiji.
That game also marked a low point for the England defence, with 27 missed tackles. Tom Curry is back now and is seen as the one-man solution to that enormous problem, but it will take an almighty collective effort to hold the line against the Pumas. The maul hasn’t wrought havoc, far from it. The breakdown has been another trouble zone and England have lacked aerial authority, for a team who kick such a lot.
In that regard, the recent lapses by Freddie Steward are an alarming indication that time spent in this England set-up is not enhancing the squad members as it should. The Leicester full-back has endured his first Test career blip, while the inability to bring through Henry Arundell as a potential weapon of mass destruction, with his pace out wide, reflects badly on this regime.
Signs of progress must be hidden away in all the data, as they aren’t clear using mere human eyesight. So this momentous fixture will see England relying on a lot of caps and reputations.
Without the banned captain, Owen Farrell, and Billy Vunipola Borthwick must hope that other stalwarts can scale past heights.
How England need the true Maro Itoje to stand up and deliver one of those towering displays which saw him emerge as one of the world’s best forwards between 2017 and 2019. They also need Ellis Genge to reignite the fires within which propelled him to rampage all over the poor, stunned Wallabies last summer.
After naming his team for this encounter with Argentina, who won at Twickenham last November, Borthwick spoke about the mobility in England’s pack. But look at the Pumas they take on – Julian Montoya, Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer, Tomas Lavanini and all the other mighty men who can provide a platform for the quick-stepping Mateo Carreras and goal-kicking Emiliano Boffelli.
For all the gripes about close-call selections and narrow tactics, the sense persists that England have enough good players here to mount a decent campaign, but they are not amounting to a good team, not yet anyway. There are longer-term concerns about a malfunctioning talent pathway, but right now Borthwick has enough talent to take the national team to a quarter-final, maybe even the last four.
The official line this week is that they have been written off too early, but that is not true. All who care about English rugby are waiting for real, tangible proof that the national team can engage and excite them again.
The cycle of failure needs to be broken. Based on the walk rather than the talk, that task seems beyond England.
THREE KEY CLASHES
Jamie George v Julian Montoya
This is a momentous clash of the hookers: England’s irreplaceable forward against the Pumas captain. George can deliver a slick English lineout operation and aid Dan Cole’s efforts to resist the Argentinian scrum. But, as he has proved at Leicester, Montoya is an aggressive force of nature and a breakdown threat.
Jonny May v Mateo Carreras
Both wingers are proven finishers but May is trying to prolong an England career which seemed to be fading, whereas Carreras has burst to prominence relatively recently with his dazzling exploits for Newcastle and his country. May has pace but the Puma has an astonishing step, which regularly flummoxes defenders.
Courtney Lawes v Pablo Matera
If England are to prevail against the odds, they must somehow counter Argentina’s formidable back row. Matera is the kingpin. At his best, he is imperious as a tackler, jackaler and carrier. But fellow flanker Lawes can lead with calm authority, defend with ferocity, dominate in the air and provide ruck presence, too.