It has not been a happy few years for English rugby fans, with the national team looking to be on track for future successes when they reached the 2019 Rugby World Cup final before falling agonisingly short, and then going on a steep decline to leave them a long way off where they had hoped to be as the start point of the latest edition of the tournament draws near.
However, if there was ever a time to show what they can really do and to get the nation back onside, then this was it, and the fact that they managed to reach the 2019 final against a few people’s odds and whilst coming up against some tough sides will give them a lot of hope and confidence that they might emulate that this time around.
They are not among the favourites this year, but that does not mean that they are incapable of reaching the latter stages of the tournament. It would be a surprise if they did, but it is not completely beyond the realms of possibility.
When the Rugby Football Union (RFU) announced the departure of Eddie Jones in early December, there were divided opinions over whether it was the right call at the right time or not. For some, results had not been good enough and things had gone stale in the camp, whilst others questioned the timing, with there only being a few months until the start of the Six Nations and then a few months more until the World Cup.
However, what many agreed on was that a fresh approach was required, and, given that he had turned Leicester Tigers around and restored them to the top of English domestic rugby, there were high hopes that Jones’ former assistant Steve Borthwick would be the exciting appointment that England needed to instigate a revival.
So far, results and performances have been a mixed bag at best, with plenty of question marks still remaining around team selections and tactics, and a few are already wondering if Borthwick was the right person to take over after all. Certainly for some, the World Cup will be point at which they decide one way or another, and it could be an important tournament off the field for England and their head coach as much as it is on it for that reason.
When looking at England’s performances, the first thing that immediately comes to mind is that there is no clear identity yet, with Borthwick still experimenting with lineups and unsure of his best formation as it stands, and that means that there is no unity among the XV as players don’t know at the moment whether they are coming or going.
Their attack in particular has really suffered from that, with their being a lot of disjointedness to their play, and there is little doubt that they need to work to develop partnerships and combinations if they are to use the ball and not be easy to contain.
The major structural concern has been the 10-12 combination, and getting that right really does feel like the secret to unlocking England’s attacking potential. Under Jones, George Ford or Marcus Smith started at fly-half whilst Owen Farrel was used as the inside centre, but it was a dynamic that never really worked and left England lacking a shape with the ball.
Under Borthwick, Farrell has shifted back to being a 10, either starting or as a replacement, and Ollie Lawrence has come in at 12, and that has looked a lot better as a partnership, with there now being one creative player on the field and another who has the power to run forward and make devastating carries, and England have looked a lot more comfortable in that setup.
It remains to be seen which way Borthwick opts to go at the World Cup, but there is no doubt that England’s attack will not flow unless this area of the team is sorted out, so it will be interesting to keep an eye on it as their first match draws ever closer.
The defensive side of things structurally is more settled, in that key positions do seem to be allocated, such as at full-back where Freddie Steward is undoubtedly the first choice if fit.
However, when the ball is in play, England look far from comfortable, with them often leaving gaps open and making themselves far too easy to score against. The match against France in the 2023 Six Nations was a big indicator of that, with the World Cup hosts having so much success when moving up the field and England simply unable to keep them back.
Discipline too has been a big issue and is one of the reasons that England do give teams so many opportunities to test their resolve, and this was a constant problem under Jones as well as now with Borthwick at the helm. Too many times during matches, England rack up the penalty count and concede simply needless penalties, and the recent Summer Nations Series match with Wales (the second of their clashes) showed just how damaging that can be for them.
There have been efforts to remedy this through bringing referees into the coaching sessions to highlight to the players where they will be pulled up for infringements, but this doesn’t seem to have worked on the whole, and fans will be rightly concerned going into the tournament that it could lead to them suffering a premature exit from the competition.
It is difficult to find any standout names in the England squad, due to them being in such poor form at the moment and no-one really at the top of their game.
However, when considering what has already been said already in this preview, Lawrence is a player who will be under the spotlight, with many hoping that he will be the solution to so many problems. His strength will be key in moving the ball forwards, but he will be just as important in defence too, with him needing to make dominant tackles in order to stop opponents from accessing dangerous areas at speed whenever they win the ball.
It is not certain that he will start at the World Cup, but, if he does, he could well make a big difference to England’s fortunes on the field.
Given that they are in a pool with Chile, Argentina, Japan and Samoa, it would be seen as a travesty if England were to not make it into the knockout stages.
However, looking beyond that, it really is a case of taking it one game at a time and ensuring that, in each one, the basics are executed correctly and simple mistakes are not made. They are on the better side of the draw and won’t meet any of the heavyweight nations until nearer the end of the tournament, but they will need to remain focused on the task at hand and could surprise a few if they do. If complacency sets in, then an early exit could well be on the cards.