The England head coach names his squad for the World Cup on Monday
You hope for Steve Borthwick’s sake that he had pretty much decided upon his final 33-man England Rugby World Cup squad before Saturday’s sloppy 20-9 defeat to Wales, because he undoubtedly finished the day with more questions than answers. Steve Borthwick learned plenty about his side, but not much of it was positive.
The handling errors began straight away and never abated. Both second rows, David Ribbans and George Martin, shelled the ball early and Guy Porter followed suit. The final tally of handling errors varied by source but it was nigh on an eye-watering 20. Under the roof, too. Perhaps England were lucky to lose by just 11 points in light of such a damning statistic.
England led 9-6 at the end of what was in truth a turgid first half courtesy of three Marcus Smith penalties. The third in the final play of the first 40 was the last time they troubled the scoreboard.
Two tries in ten second-half minutes sliced England open with worrying ease as Gareth Davies and George North crossed. Even the disallowing of a wonder try for Louis Rees-Zammit could not hide how drastically short England had fallen at Principality Stadium.
What Steve Borthwick learned…
So, what can Borthwick – who revealed he will speak to all the players in his group on Sunday morning to inform them whether or not they will be going to France – take from Saturday’s game?
Nobody stuck their hand up
Very few of those wearing white emerged with much credit. Ellis Genge delivered a captain’s performance but the vice captain’s spot in the starting XV let alone the wider squad has long been assured.
Joe Marchant was another who showed glimpses of promise but aside from that there was little from the fringe players to force Borthwick’s hand with selection.
Borthwick said after the match that he needed some time to reflect on the performance but he’s unlikely to veer too far from his preconceptions coming into the start of the World Cup warm-ups.
He said: “Before the game I was pretty clear, I’ll reflect on where I am in terms of the squad selection.
“The game today informs many different elements. I expect us to build through these four games. Twenty one turnovers to nine was the count and it’s very difficult to win Test matches with that count.”
Related: England Rugby World Cup squad
Pearson overshadowed on debut
For all his supreme performances in the Premiership, Tom Pearson struggled to impose himself on his international debut. Maybe it was nerves, the big stage or just a lack of match practice but he was nowhere near as impactful as he was last seen for London Irish.
Coaches were making individual plans on how to stop the 23-year-old but all Warren Gatland required on Saturday was a standout display from his own No 7 in the shape of Jac Morgan.
Morgan, in his first game as Wales captain, underlined his superiority with a thumping low hit on Pearson that drove him back several yards. Welcome to Test rugby.
Back-row shootout no clearer
Alex Dombrandt craved a stellar display to put an underwhelming Six Nations behind him but it was not forthcoming. Like Pearson, his former Cardiff Met University team-mate Aaron Wainright outshone him at the base of the scrum. So much so that Gatland said it was his best display in a Wales shirt.
Lewis Ludlam was industrious as ever at No 6 but his place in the 33 is all but safe. Ben Earl’s conspicuous absence from this matchday 23 suggests he may also be part of the travelling party. We will find out soon enough.
Tom Willis showed glimpses of what he can do but appears to be well liked by Borthwick give he was willing to jettison Zach Mercer. Nothing that took place on the field is likely to alter the head coach’s pre-existing beliefs when it comes to the make-up of his back row, in a positive manner at least. Tom Curry’s twisted ankle in training is also less than ideal.
England are not guaranteed anything
There has, rightly, been plenty of talk about the lopsided World Cup draw. England are undoubtedly in the easier half but even that might not be enough to guarantee a knockout spot.
There have been increasingly louder whispers of late suggesting Borthwick’s men could slyly waltz into the semis without too much effort, but this display suggests that’s unlikely. Yes, they were not at full strength but this team just looks so far from being a potent attacking force, whoever the opposition.
Argentina beat Eddie Jones’ England in their own backyard in the autumn and are only growing in confidence. A demoralising defeat first up and England’s World Cup campaign could soon spiral into treacherous territory.
Japan are no strangers to upsets on the biggest stage of all and Samoa have been bolstered by their returning stars. England won’t underestimate their opponents but Saturday’s defeat might serve as another reality check for their fans.
Set-piece still an issue
Borthwick made a big point of highlighting how England were not particularly good at anything when he took over and despite his best efforts not masses has changed.
He’s specifically targeted the set-piece as an area of focus and importance. After all, it’s a traditional pillar of England’s game.
The scrum started well with some first-half penalties but that tailed off quite dramatically, like most parts of the English game, after the break. So much so that Warren Gatland said: “Despite the scrum penalties, I thought we dominated at scrum time. I need to get some clarity from the referee in terms of some of the decisions.”
The lineout also misfired at crucial junctures. Jamie Blamire was handed a rare start but did not do enough to put his place as one of Jamie George’s deputies beyond doubt, opening the door for his replacement Theo Dan.
Two five-metre attacking platforms went awry in the first half. The first appeared to be an overthrow from Blamire. The second England were penalised by Berry for having too many receivers. The free-kick awarded smacked of a team going through the training motions as England’s pack walked round to set up the maul before the ball had come in.
Plenty of work to do starting next week at Twickenham against the same opposition.
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