Borthwick’s boys are reaching for the skies but need much more to avoid crash landing at Rugby World Cup
Kicking and a whole lot of it. It is the trademark of the modern game – big, brutal teams and new breakdown laws have sometimes meant it is easier to win a game without the ball. In Nice, England implemented that plan but it was tough to watch.
Japan are not the team of 2019 when a barnstorming run in their own World Cup saw them push aside Scotland and Ireland, but they still offered a threat of which England had to be aware.
As the game meandered on, it was fairly apparent who were the dominant team. England’s battering-ram approach, behind a barrage of kicks, slowly buckled Japan’s resistance. It was a clear indicator of the England coaches’ tactics in this tournament.
Steve Borthwick has always been highly focused on statistics. This is a man who ran international and domestic lineouts as a coach and player for all of his career. Maybe those win/loss percentages, hooker throwing stats and lineout lifting numbers have nudged him down this data-driven approach. And it was certainly evident against Japan.
England’s strategy was nothing new, nothing we have not seen since Steve and his coaches took the mantle from Eddie Jones to push this team forwards.
However, what was slightly concerning was the kicking when in strong field position. England kicked to the skies early on and often won the contest in the air, only to be 30 yards from the opposition line and opt to kick again.
On another occasion they forced Japan back into their dead-ball area with the ball touched down and England receiving a goalline drop out. But they again decided for the aerial approach rather than carry and put pressure on Japan with their handling skill set.
This continued on several occasions, bringing jeers and moans from many in the crowd.
Building pressure – forcing a team to exit repeatedly, to turn and reorganise to run a five-metre lineout and exit cleanly – is no easy task. In fact, England scored their first try from a failing Japanese lineout. So the argument could be made the tactics worked, and with a bonus point bagged it is hard to deny this view.
Pressure either on the scoreboard or territorial has often won World Cups. The problem is England did not capitalise on that pressure. Often when gifted chances to build attacks or take on a three-on-two opportunity they were turned down. Back to the boot and back to building pressure.
The worry is England and some of their outstanding outside backs are dutifully hemmed in, resorting to tactics rather than seeing and feeling the opportunity.
On the rare occasion the ball was moved to the outside channel, kick over run was the preferred response. When they regained the ball from smart, clever high kicks, the players looked lost in their organisation and structure, often running into each others’ spaces or being too flat for George Ford to find.
The ‘but’ here – and it is a big ‘but’ – is this a World Cup, and winning in any way possible is all that matters.
Do England need to improve if they’re to be a force and go deep into the tournament? Without a doubt. Does this give England a stepping stone and a chance to build on what was a poor run-up to the tournament? Yes, but they need more. Much, much more.