The stars are starting to align for England

I’ve had some amazing on-field coaches in my time at Leicester and the club routinely used to try and employ an inside-centre as an on-field coach. We had Rod Kafer, Pat Howard, Daryl Gibson and Aaron Mauger. They’ve all have gone on to coach in the game, but George Ford is as smart an on-field coach as I’ve ever come across. Tactically he so, so sharp.

In recent years, one of England’s downfalls has been their inability to change their gameplan on the field. If they’ve gone out with Plan A, and it wasn’t working, they’ve either been too slow to change it up, or they’ve simply failed to implement Plan B properly. George Ford stopped that indecision in Marseille. We’ve since been told the drop goal tactic was rehearsed, that it was something in their locker, but you have to give immense credit to George. There’s one thing saying it, but an entirely different thing executing it in a high-pressure environment. He put England in the right areas and his goalkicking was immense.

The thing I like about him is he gives players confidence. It’s basically, ‘this is how we’re playing, so follow me’. So much about rugby is clarity in what you’re doing, so having a 10 reinforcing that messaging all the time, and telling you where you need to be is vital. He’s a such a good communicator and has made selection very interesting now, especially when Owen (Farrell) is back. Steve Borthwick is a strong enough character to make that call to not pick Owen, or have him coming off the bench and I think Owen would respect that. There is balance in midfield right now and I thought Manu Tuilagi had a decent game against Argentina, while (Joe) Marchant gives them that pace in the outside channels.

George Ford is a brilliant on-field coach and kicked quite beautifully in a 27-point haul (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Another player I think is starting to find his feet is Alex Mitchell. The question mark over him was, can he play the tight game Borthers wants, which is why he wasn’t in the initial squad but rumours were swirling that the players said they weren’t happy with the gameplan which is why Mitchell has been drafted in and against Japan, the hope is he’ll kick on and start to get some backing from his colleagues as he starts to bed in and do what he does so well with Northampton.

It’s funny, one of the positives to come out of the Curry red card – although none of us thought it at the time – was that it played into England’s hands. They didn’t have to worry about, ‘is this the right game plan?’, or ‘is our attack firing? Everyone had to buy in to, ‘this is what we have to do, we have to be horrible to beat and we have to take it to Argentina. Let them deal with all the pressure of being all-out favourites. It was like England were saying, ‘go on then, you play all the rugby’. As soon as Cheika’s side started making mistakes, their brittle psychology cracked. It’s amazing how many times you see a team of 14 doing a job on a team of 15.

I can see England getting much, much better which is all down to their confidence, and they will be in good shape going into the quarters.

The red card also meant they didn’t need to answer questions about their attack but now they need some ambition against lesser nations and to build off the back of that confidence that they’re in pole position for the group. They’ve answered the critics about their resilience. I can see England getting much, much better which is all down to their belief, and they will be in good shape going into the quarters. That Argentina game, if they reach the semis, will be seen as the catalyst for that run, which not many expected.

It’s early days, of course, but the stars are starting to align for England and they’re getting their sh*t together. They’ve got the easiest group; the easiest side of the draw. They’ve sorted their defensive issues out and while there’s a long way to go, they have a shot at building this belief. Japan aren’t the side they were, so it’s a chance for England to build momentum and then they have Chile as well, who should not cause too many problems, while Samoa will test them physically but it should give them a chance to exploit a physical but not altogether organised defence.

Alex Mitchell
Alex Mitchell has shown he can control a game and stick to the gameplan Steve Borthwick wants (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

For me, there are similarities with us in 2007. When you’ve been in the pits of despair, and you finally get some momentum, it’s amazing how quickly the belief floods back because you’re so desperate for it. France 16 years ago was a really good case in point. The first four weeks were the worst of my rugby career because everyone was telling us how bad we were but against Australia we knew we had to come out fighting. When we saw the opposition wilting, the next three weeks were the best of my rugby career. You go from the lowest ebb to the highest of highs in the space of a few weeks and it’s intoxicating. Now I’m not saying England are going to win the World Cup here but I am talking about them getting to the semi-finals, and if they get there, they are two big performances away from winning it. They are nowhere near favourites, but they are in the hunt.

Looking ahead, it will be really interesting how Billy’s (Vunipola) reintegration affects things. I thought Ben Earl and Lawes were outstanding against Argentina, to the point you couldn’t see where they missed Curry.

I think Borthers would love that challenge to go up against Eddie in a big knockout game. They obviously get on but there’s some aggro there. Eddie and Cheika were close but they had some ding-dong battles.

England still lack a strong ball carrier, however. The type, who in the tight exchanges ties in three or four defenders; the Springboks and France have them in spades. England have explosive, powerful players who can bust tackles, but when a move starts to break down, they need players who can get you back on the front foot when they have no right to. Even though he played well for Saracens last year, he’s not the world class No 8 he was four years ago, but he could get back there if the team sparks him into life – you don’t suddenly become unable to do the things you’ve always done. It’s still in his locker, he’s just got to find it.

As for who England would want in the quarters. Borthers wouldn’t waste time thinking about it, but for different reasons, I think it could be Australia he wants. I think Borthers would love that challenge to go up against Eddie in a big knockout game. They obviously get on but there’s some aggro there. Eddie and Cheika were close but they had some ding-dong battles. Borthers has publicly said, ‘England were in a right state when I took over’. That’s straight out of the Eddie Jones playbook, he’d have said that.

Steve Borthwick
Steve Borthwick has decisions to make with the re-integration of Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

As for the rest of the coaches, they are quite young. Wiggy will still feel a bit like a player and try to prove the critics wrong but Borthers doesn’t listen to the media at all, you can tell by his vanilla answers. He doesn’t want to give anything away. It’s clear it’s a part of the job he doesn’t enjoy.

Kevin Sinfield needed that defensive performance. Shutting out the Pumas will have given him a massive boost and I read this week Aled Walters talking it up that it was a deliberate strategy to be sluggish in the warm-up games. I don’t buy that but it didn’t surprise me that he overloaded them up and then pulled right back because it’s a proven strategy. It’s easy to backfill the reasons for a strategy but either way, after the performance against Argentina, it worked because the players will have more energy at training, they’ll be feeling happy and relaxed and winning has a proper snowball effect.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, but by the time they get to the quarter-final stages they could be ahead of the teams they will play against in the rankings and no one expected that a matter of weeks ago.


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