I understand Steve Borthwick’s messages about England – I just do not believe them

Steve Borthwick watches England train
Steve Borthwick (left) has won two out of two, but the hard part starts now - AFP/Glyn Kirk
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So, only England and Ireland can win a Grand Slam this year. That is a fact but, as with many facts, context is all. Ireland have romped to successive victories with ease, whilst England have fashioned two narrow wins against the weaker of their Six Nations opponents, Italy and Wales. Nonetheless, victory-wise, Steve Borthwick’s men have done what was demanded by negotiating opening games that could have easily got away from them. We will soon find out whether Tommy Freeman and Maro Itoje, who have said England can carry the title race this year, are correct.

England’s recent record against teams ranked higher than them is poor. Thus, their next game, against Scotland at Murrayfield, is the ideal opportunity to take the next step on the path back to rugby’s top table. A win would open up a genuinely seismic game against the Irish, with the winner left the sole contender for a Slam. A loss would mean England had won just one out of the last six Calcutta Cup games and that they belong at the bottom end of the table, where they have dwelt for the past three years.

Though it will not be accepted as such by Borthwick, this is a vital game as it will show whether there has been any genuine improvement under him in this Six Nations.

England are not so wet behind the ears

After the game it was interesting to hear Borthwick describe his team as young. Once more, this needs looking at as a matter of fact. I suppose it depends on what you, or he, means by young, and its applicable context. It is young in the sense that it has several new unit combinations. It does have several recently-capped younger players. It would, however, be disingenuous to use the expression young to excuse errors you would not forgive when it comes to more established players. England started and finished the game with well over 600 caps in their playing XV. They are not a team that is starting from new, and they have considerable experience throughout the team.

Joe Marler cheers on the England team
Players like Joe Marler have considerable experience - Getty Images/Dan Mullan

Borthwick went on to stress what he saw as the positives that could be defined from last Saturday’s two-point win. He said that he saw a team that ‘stays in the fight and finds a way’. Again, context is important. England did accommodate the loss of two players to the sin bin and they did overcome the difficulties caused by a 6-0 penalty count against them in the first half. However, whose fault was it that they were in that position? This dilemma was not created by a remorseless onslaught by a super-talented Welsh team.

Blame lies with the players

England’s two yellow cards were self-inflicted, however marginal you think the decisions were. If you continue to describe such setbacks as ill-luck you would have to conclude that they are one of the unluckiest teams around when they are compared to other teams. Alternatively, you could get real and lay the blame where it really lies, with the players concerned. You could also, forcefully, make the point that against the best teams even one yellow card can have insurmountable consequences.

As England’s new captain, Jamie George deserves praise for holding his side together in extremis. It is not as simple as issuing a rallying call to a team under pressure, it requires tactical adjustments and setting a personal example. What George has to guard against is sacrificing his personal focus and his own contribution in the pivotal position of hooker. He needs to ensure that he is not distracted by responsibilities to his team. Having been one of England’s most consistent performers, George needs to continue to contribute via his ball-carrying and support running; he was uncommonly quiet in this regard.

It took some time for England to gain the upper hand up front and against the better scrums that their remaining opponents possess it would be worth considering starting with their strongest scrummaging front row, which means starting Dan Cole. As the modern game is all about giving the referee the impression of dominance in the scrum, would it not be better to try and achieve this right away?

Joe Marler and Dan Cole embrace
England's strongest scrummaging front row would mean Marler and Dan Cole starting - Getty Images/Steve Bardens

We will have a much better idea of where England are over the next three fixtures. What would help them greatly is not just stressing the discipline battle; they need to improve their ball-carrying and to increase the number of decisions they ask of defences. Apart from Ben Earl, England are not making the required hard yards. This is where Richard Wigglesworth has to show his work in progress, as it is in this area there are still the most questions that remain unanswered. Nobody is asking for a revolution. An evolution, but a genuine and recognisable one, is needed.

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