(estimated 5 minute read time)
The Guinness 6 Nations 2023 is beyond the halfway point and with England having played three games against Scotland, Italy and Wales, we’ve taken this opportunity to assess England’s performance so far and see what changes Steve Borthwick and his coaching team have made in the short time they have been in charge.
Steve Borthwick was appointed as the head coach of the England rugby team in December 2022, succeeding Eddie Jones. Borthwick has a wealth of experience in coaching, having previously worked as an assistant coach for Japan and the British and Irish Lions, as well as serving as the head coach of the Leicester Tigers. Under Eddie Jones, England had mixed fortunes in the 6 Nations. They won the tournament in 2016 and 2017, but finished in fifth place in 2018 and 2019, before bouncing back to finish second in 2020. However, in the most recent tournament in 2021, England finished in fifth place once again, winning just two out of their five matches.
One of the biggest changes under Borthwick’s leadership has been the introduction of a new coaching team. Rugby league legend Kevin Sinfield is the defensive coach, former All Black Nick Evans is marshalling the attack, whilst former Leicester stalwart Richard Cockerill has been drilling the forwards. Borthwick has surrounded himself with a wealth of coaching expertise but has also realised there needed to be a cultural shift within the England dressing room. He has emphasized the need for a more cohesive and collaborative team ethos, which he believes will help the team to perform better on the field. He has emphasized the importance of players taking ownership of their roles and responsibilities, and has encouraged greater communication and feedback between players and coaches.
Overall, Borthwick’s coaching philosophy is centred around creating a cohesive and united team that plays with intensity, discipline, and an unrelenting desire to win. So, with these goals in mind how have England performed?
The tournament started badly- the Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland at Twickenham ended in a disappointing defeat after blowing a decent lead and England did not perform well in attack or defence. Their kicking game was loose, the attack was turgid and England fans didn’t see the defensive bite they’d hoped for. However, this was the first game under a new regime and had it not been for Duhan Van Der Merwe’s incredible solo try, running in from inside his own half, England would probably have won what was an ultimately scrappy affair, lacking the clarity and set piece dominance we’d been expecting. The Green Room’s very own Mike Tindall confirmed post-match he thought England would win that game but “fans shouldn’t read too much into the first game under Steve Borthwick” but his former coach Clive Woodward was a little more scathing, criticising England’s defensive performance and questioned the combination of Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith at 12 and 10 respectively.
Then came the visit of Italy to Twickenham – the perennial whipping boys of the tournament that had never beaten England in their history. Fortunately for England fans, they still haven’t but Italian rugby is on the rise. Wins against Wales and Australia in 2022 have created a resurgent Azzurri outfit and they certainly troubled England in all phases of the game. England’s first half showed more of the speed and attacking intent we’d hoped for, but the second half drop-off was very disappointing. Granted, the Italians put in a dogged, determined second half display but England let them back into the game through lack of discipline and game management. Post-game in The Green Room, it would be Lawrence Dallaglio that also questioned the Smith-Farrell axis saying “they just don’t seem on the same page and it’s just not clicking.”
The assessment of our rugby legends proved correct as Marcus Smith was dropped for the visit to Cardiff, with Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade playing in the centres with Owen Farrell starting at fly half. And, after a very competent first 40 minutes against Wales which saw England creating width and attacking with venom, England started to look like the cohesive unit fans had all been hoping for. A great try from Anthony Watson, dominance in the set-piece and some imperious work from Freddy Steward at full back was only marred by Owen Farrell’s average display from the kicking tee. Again though, the second half as England’s downfall. Despite winning the game, England’s second half performance reverted to the sort of slow rudderless performance that has categorised so much of England’s play in the last year or so. Poor kicking, lack of attacking options and not quite enough hostility in defence have all contributed to an inconsistent start to Borthwick’s tenure as coach.
In assessment of the three games so far, we haven’t seen the swarming, suffocating defence of the Irish or the physical blitzing onslaught that is the French defence under Shaun Edwards – England will need to find a way of once again becoming the most miserly defence in world rugby. However, we have seen an emerging pattern so far in terms of selection which will help in this facet of the game. Lewis Ludlam is a defensive work horse, there a few better scavengers than Tom Curry and in Alex Dombrandt, England have a number eight that can be equally devastating with or without the ball. At inside centre, Ollie Lawrence has proven his ability and at full-back, there is nobody better under the high ball than Freddie Steward. In selecting lock-flanker hybrids like Ollie Chessum and Maro Itoje, Borthwick is increasing mobility and athleticism in his forward pack and with time, we’ll surely see much more from this talented crop of England players.
England have two huge games to play in the 6 Nations 2023 – world number one Ireland and world number two France. If England can get a result against one of these heavily fancied teams, then we can firmly say the shoots of recovery are growing under Borthwick and with time to develop such a fantastic group of players, England fans can expect much more going into the Rugby World Cup later this year.