If England can’t catch, can’t pass and can’t carry, how do they win a Test?

England's players after their Calcutta Cup defeat against Scotland
A succession of fundamental errors let England down at Murrayfield - David Rogers/Getty Images
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It was the Daily Telegraph’s late, great, cricket writer, Martin Johnson, who said of the 1986-87 England cricket team: “They can’t bat, they can’t bowl, and they can’t field.” The plagiarised, and adapted headline to this piece might appear gratuitous, but it is not wholly inaccurate when it comes to the England rugby team’s performance in last Saturday’s Calcutta Cup. A match which saw them lose to Scotland for the fourth consecutive time and to a team that played far from the perfect game.

No player deliberately makes mistakes and errors, to some extent, are inevitable under the fierce pressure that is exerted during Test match encounters. Recognising that, however, is not an excuse that can be legitimately used by players for failing to execute basic skills. It also cannot be used to shield coaches from criticism, when the systems they design do not work as effectively as they should or fail to address fundamental failings.

I accept there is partial inaccuracy in the allegation of all-round inability. England’s first 10 minutes were very good. Their first try was a well-executed, set-piece move that involved deception to pull Finn Russell out of his defensive shape and then offered an extra ball carrier, Elliot Daly, to make the crucial line-break from which George Furbank scored.

What followed thereafter was an inexplicable and, at this level, inexcusable, litany of handling errors and turnovers which undermined England’s every attempt to capitalise on their outstanding start.

You can often make statistics mean what you want but this time England cannot claim what follows is taken out of context or is capable of different interpretation. When you make 25 handling errors and commit 22 turnovers in a game you will not beat any half decent Test team.

The totals for Scotland, of 13 and 14 respectively, are capable of an alternative construction. The nine handling errors Scotland made in the first half were largely forced by England’s effective rush defence. England’s handling errors were often made yards away from the nearest Scottish defender and in the first half the majority of these mistakes were committed in or around the Scottish 10-metre line. This meant England could sustain no further pressure on the Scots, who stayed in touch on the scoreboard and then cruised ahead with two tries from the outstanding Duhan van der Merwe.

Further, the fact that Scotland made only four further errors shows that they were able to adapt to the England pressure, whereas the away side continued to err, and more frequently in the second half. Some of this might be because of scoreboard pressure and being behind; too much of it was of the same self-inflicted nature as in the first 40 minutes.

I fully admit to being unable to offer a precise explanation or remedy for England’s handling profligacy. What can you practically do, other than to express extreme displeasure and ask players to look honestly at their performances and to ensure it is not repeated? Maro Itoje said that the players will be holding an honesty meeting about this. If so, good – and it should be bloody. The ultimate disciplinary measure is to drop a player, but England’s confidence, whatever the players say to the media, is wafer-thin, as their vulnerability under pressure shows.

Duhan van der Merwe breaks forward to score a try for Scotland against England
England struggled to contain Scotland's Duhan van der Merwe - Stu Forster/Getty Images

Coaches cannot come on to the field and play for players, but they can design systems that give players the best chance of being effective. If you read this column regularly you must now be exclaiming ‘He’s not going on about ball-carrying again, is he?’

I would like to report that England had developed a more sophisticated ball-carrying game, that repeatedly challenged defences in different ways. But I cannot do so and many other, better qualified rugby commentators, have repeatedly highlighted this seminal deficiency in England’s attack.

To be honest, it does not take rugby genius to point to the numerous times that players like Ellis Genge are asked to assail defences on their own, with little or no assistance from team-mates as support or decoy runners. The fact that Scotland made 12 dominant tackles to England’s two shows what happens when you run at two set defenders without artifice. This issue was the principal discussion topic of all three BBC post-match pundits John Barclay, Sam Warburton and Ugo Monye.

If this is obvious to them, and many others, why does this keep happening? Either the players are not executing the plan correctly or Richard Wigglesworth, England’s attack coach, must bear responsibility. What ever the cause, if England do not improve markedly in this regard they will suffer against Ireland and France, their remaining opponents.

Still, there might be hope. The England side about which Johnson quipped went on to win that Ashes series. Maybe Borthwick and England can summon up equally unlikely outcomes against the Irish and the French.

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