Are England more than meets the eye?


England fans’ worst fears were realised when Tom Curry was dismissed after just 3 minutes in their opening match. If it weren’t for a George Ford masterclass England might have been down and out already. A mediocre showing against Japan followed, scuppering any idea that they might be contenders, yet Steve Borthwick’s’ side walked away from Nice with another win and now find themselves in command of Pool D. So, what have the opening matches revealed about England, and how much better can they get? 

England’s performance against Argentina was good, a gutsy display which showed the team had the grit and determination required to win a World Cup. It even appeared that England had recanvassed the support of the fans. Third year student James Taylor* was lucky enough to catch the action in Marseille stating that “it was the most lively he had seen an England crowd”. 

There were plenty of positives to take away from the game against Argentina. To start England looked fit. One of the big criticisms of England in their warmup games has been that they looked ragged – Wales coach Warren Gatland even cited it as the likely reason that Wales were able to beat England in Cardiff just over a month ago. England put any concerns surrounding their fitness to rest with a titanic showing against Los Pumas. It was foolish to doubt England’s fitness, especially with Aled Walters at the helm who conditioned the Springboks to World Cup glory 4 years ago. 

The second big positive that England fans can takeaway is some of the individual performances. Not only did George Ford score all of England’s twenty-seven points, but he also demonstrated a masterclass in game management, marshalling England around the pitch. Captain Courtney Lawes quietly led by example, while Ben Earl affirmed that in spite of his celebration antics, he is a truly world-class player, making thirteen tackles and winning two turnovers. Jamie George was at the centre of a strong England scrum and an economic lineout, while Alex Mitchell looked sharp with 3 defenders beaten in a rare start at number 9. 

Sadly, England’s performance against Japan reignited concerns that England have no dynamism in attack. A poor kicking display often relieved pressure on the Blossoms when England were in positions of dominance. Fortunately, Japan were equally as sluggish making many unforced errors and getting sucked into England’s game of kick tennis. It wasn’t until the 59th minute when Joe Marler headed to Courtney Lawes in an acre of space that England finally began to draw away from the Brave Blossoms. 

Although one bad kicking display is not cause for too much concern, England’s refusal to play in any other dimension is. Marcus Smith seemed to inject some pace when he entered the fray, but apart from his cameo England put in a stereotypically dull showing. “So much excitement had been built up after that win against the Pumas,” said Palatinate’s correspondent *James Taylor, “but today wasn’t good enough, everyone I spoke to was frustrated and drunk”. 

Sadly, England’s performance against Japan reignited concerns that England have no dynamism in attack.

Taking all of this into consideration leaves two big questions; can England win the World Cup playing this style of rugby? And, if so, are we as fans ok with that?

To put it into perspective, only eighteen tries have been scored in World Cup finals, meaning that in your average World Cup final only 10 points will be scored in the form of tries. Conversely, there have been sixty-three penalties and drop goals scored in World Cup finals meaning on average twenty-one points will be scored in the form of penalties or drop goals. 

The point is that maybe England look more like World Cup finalists than we may think. I’m confident that George Ford’s drop goals against Argentina were no coincidence. Borthwick and England have clearly been manufacturing these scenarios to win them tight games. It is unclear whether England would have revealed their hand this early if it weren’t for Tom Curry’s red card, but we can be sure that England will look to use the same tactic later in the tournament. 

I must confess that I was not entertained by either of England’s performances and it appears that fans share this sentiment. However, if you were to question these same fans whether they would be happy to win a World Cup despite being bored with the way their team plays, they would nod in affirmation; it is a World Cup, is it not? 

England have plenty to do before they can start thinking about the ultimate prize of a World Cup winners medal, but if they can show the same tactical astuteness they showed against Argentina (and keep fifteen men on the field), then maybe, just maybe, they’re closer than we think. 

*Names changed 

Image by Mr.ちゅらさん via Wikimedia Commons.

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