The curious case of England, the most hard-to-judge team at the Rugby World Cup
England coach Steve Borthwick has built a reputation for being meticulous, someone who — in the words of his predecessor Eddie Jones — would be “hunched over his laptop for hour after hour.”
Yet deep down, even Borthwick — this most thorough of rugby leaders — might not know what is coming when his players take to the field in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals on Sunday.
The tournament is down to the final eight and England, despite going four wins from four in the pool stage, is surely the most hard-to-read team remaining.
Take its results in the last year and a bit, for example.
The final six months of 2022 — in other words, the dying embers of Jones’ tenure — contained a series win in Australia in June 2022, followed by a turgid home loss to Argentina in a November campaign that also included a late rally for a 25-25 draw with the All Blacks.
Enter Borthwick, who oversaw a feeble first Six Nations campaign that ended with a 53-10 home loss to France and fourth-place finish.
Then came the alarming World Cup warmups featuring a first ever loss to Fiji, before England appeared to turn a corner with a backs-to-the-wall effort in beating Argentina in their opening World Cup game playing with 14 men from the third minute.
However, the struggle to get past Samoa last weekend seemed to take England back to square one, hardly the ideal place to be heading into the quarterfinal against Fiji on Sunday.
There might be a number of factors behind this inconsistency.
A coaching change less than a year out from a World Cup might have left England’s squad caught between two approaches: The intensity and bluntness of Jones compared to the more methodical, introverted nature of Borthwick.
Then there’s the players. The team contains most of the guys who played — and lost — the 2019 final but there’s a general feeling that some are still living on their reputations and would have been moved on had Borthwick not wanted experienced players he could trust to handle these big World Cup occasions.
He is still unsure on Marcus Smith, the man with X-factor in the backs. He has still to settle on a No. 8, with Alex Dombrandt — who held that position in the Six Nations — not even in the World Cup squad.
England entered the 2003 Rugby World Cup with a clear identity and a togetherness built from a run of strong results over the previous 18 months. That was the basis for winning the title for the first time.
The class of 2023 lacks those qualities, even if the experience of 2019 shouldn’t be underestimated.
“We have a great group of senior players who are very open and honest with the younger players that it could be intimidating for,” said England hooker Jamie George, who played in the 2019 final. “This is why we are here. We want to play on the biggest stages. The quarterfinal of a World Cup is exactly where we want to be and next week we want to be in the semifinal and so on.
“It’s exciting times and the more experienced players probably need to draw on those experiences.”
The English can count themselves lucky they have been on the mediocre half of the draw, which might allow them to get to the semifinals without playing an opponent ranked in the world’s top five.
It means it is still so hard to judge how good this England team is — and that might still be the case after the game against the Fijians, who showed worrying signs in the loss to Portugal on Sunday that a grueling pool stage might be catching up with them.
Then again, Fiji has to be lifted by the memory of its win at Twickenham in August, footage of which has been played back to England’s players this week.
“Some clips have been shown because it is a reminder we can’t be that team again, playing against a very, very good Fiji who are very dangerous when you give them what they want,” George said.
“Kev Sinfield (England’s defense coach) said, ‘I wasn’t sure about showing you this, but we can’t be this team again.’ We are still hurting from performances like that, I still hurt from performances three years ago. You don’t like to be reminded of those things but if that can fuel the fire, then why not?”
George insisted the world “will see a very different England team” on Sunday.
And that’s what must frustrate Borthwick more than anything else.