The deficiency of power, individual skill and team cohesion in the 53-10 humiliation by France at Twickenham give this Saturday’s trip to Dublin in the final round of the Six Nations the potential to be brutal, as the Irish like to say.
The commentary from England’s head coach Steve Borthwick is of France and several other rivals being three years ahead in their team-building.
The implication is the legacy of England’s run to the 2019 World Cup final was trashed by Borthwick’s predecessor Eddie Jones and his ever-changing cohort of coaches, and England’s supporters therefore need to wait until 2026 for a resurgence – unless Borthwick and an embarrassed set of players can flip the situation round with some accelerated development.
It was put to Borthwick on Saturday evening that those fans may now be writing off the World Cup in September, in which their team are drawn with Argentina, Japan, Samoa and Chile in the pool, with Australia or Wales in the quarter-finals – if they get through.
Borthwick replied: “We’ve got work to do, and we know that. We knew we were going to find out where we were against the number two side in the world and we have come a long way short.”
There are no easy answers in the immediate analysis. England created a series of promising positions in the first 30 minutes on Saturday but chucked them away with a fumble, a breakdown error, a poor kick or a weird unwillingness to pass to the man outside them. At the very first ruck in the first minute, Maro Itoje pulled his own scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet in, gifting France the ball.
Did England give up too easily, or were they never up to matching the power of France in the contact area in the first place?
As Jamie George, the 79-times capped England and Lions hooker, put it: “I want to apologise [to the supporters] because I’m one of them, really. I would be gutted if I’d turned up to Twickenham and seen an England team play like that. We are sorry… it’s clear we have a long way to go.”
Two words to sum up the gap would be Antoine Dupont. What a player. The French scrum-half’s kicking off both feet and sheer sharp-mindedness – even when England’s captain Ellis Genge stooped to pick the ball up as a delaying tactic, Dupont quickly toed it out of his hands – were wonderful to watch.
With Greg Alldritt and Charles Ollivon as proven world-class performers in the back row, and Jonathan Danty back to solidify the midfield and breakdown, a portion of the awful scoreline becomes explicable.
This was France’s first Six Nations win at Twickenham since 2005 but Fabian Galthie’s men have 27 wins in 34 matches since the last World Cup.
But this was England’s heaviest loss in any home match, ever – their two wider margins of defeat were sustained by weakened teams on tour: 76-0 in Australia in 1998, and 58-10 in South Africa in 2007.
At a fraught and distressing time like this, you peer into the breeding ground of the Premiership and age-group system to ask if players have the necessary toughness and core skills to survive at the highest Test level. The carrying grit in Premiership packs is often provided by South Africans and Pacific Islanders.
A handful of young England players have never experienced this kind of adversity. Their clubs are either going bust or struggling to make an impression in Europe.
So what next? Ireland will bring the same power as the French. Do England turn to Manu Tuilagi, yet again, now he is free of suspension? You think also of Jonny Hill and Billy Vunipola as big forwards who have been left on the sidelines. In a matter of days, players need to learn or remember how to combine to create the mass multiplied by velocity they were missing.
“The game is never simply technical and tactical,” said Borthwick. “It is always the mindset of it, and ultimately we went scores down and didn’t respond well enough. We need a good understanding of why that happened.”
Freddie Steward kept carrying at full-back. Alex Mitchell provides zip at scrum-half and is worth a start. Marcus Smith should not be a scapegoat, as such, but a couple of kicks from hand were gross errors, and you wonder again if he needs a different structure in order to prosper.
England had a big scrum success on 51 minutes but the penalty kick missed touch, and in the next eight minutes they were shattered by the brilliant Thibaud Flament, and then Ollivon somehow poaching a try when Smith was driven over his own line.
That was 41-10, England had the replacement hooker Jack Walker playing as a back due to injuries and despite Smith and others keeping at it, the game and many Twickenham spectators were long gone.