The Six Nations is without a doubt one of the biggest tournaments in Rugby Union, and it is only becoming more exciting as the games become less predictable. One such game is one of the fiercest rivalries in rugby history – the Calcutta Cup clash between England and Scotland.
What was once an almost guaranteed win for England has flipped in recent years. In the last six clashes, England have claimed only one victory, a worrying statistic for their fans. Is something going wrong for English rugby, or is it simply that Scotland are much stronger than they used to be?
The 2023 Calcutta Cup had a lot riding on it. Not only were England hoping to end Scotland’s winning streak, but fans were watching with bated breath to see how Steve Borthwick’s era as head coach would start after what had been a difficult two years at the end of Eddie Jones’ reign. Unfortunately for England fans, this new era did not get off to the start they hoped for with a 29-23 loss to Scotland, and there were some clear areas which are still not working.
One such aspect was the 10-12 axis of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell, a big talking point during the Autumn Internationals and something which is still causing problems. One of Borthwick’s main points when he was introduced as head coach was that he wanted to pick players who are on form in positions which they play for their club. This confused fans when he then went on to pick Farrell at 12, when he has been playing well for Saracens at 10.
It is definitely a difficult dilemma; you have two outstanding players who you both want on the pitch but forcing Farrell to play out of position is not working. Marcus Smith is an incredible number 10 for Harlequins where he plays with creativity and makes incredible opportunities. However, the England set-up is different to that of Harlequins and Smith seems to be struggling to fit in.
Perhaps a better set up would be to have Farrell starting at 10 alongside two true centres, and then have Smith come off the bench and bring his flair to the game when needed. This seems to be currently working with Romain Ntamack who starts for France at 10 and then Matthieu Jalibert, who recently has been coming off the bench and scoring tries. This weakness for England was clearly exploited by Scotland as Finn Russell, Sione Tuipulotu, and Huw Jones played well together and dominated the midfield.
This specific problem seems to highlight the larger problem of England’s lack of cohesion as a team. Duhan van der Merwe’s 28th minute try was undeniably one for the history books as he skirted past five English defenders, but it came from disjointed English play.
When watching Ireland play at the moment, they seem to have gelled completely and play very well as a team. In comparison, England seem a team who look lost and need plenty of playing time together. Sadly, this is an opportunity they don’t have as the Six Nations are the only competitive games before the World Cup in France starts in September.
This is not to say all is bad. Borthwick highlighted the set piece as an incredibly important part of the game, and compared to the Autumn Internationals, progress has been made.
In England’s final game of 2022 against South Africa, they won 42% of their scrums and 66% of their lineouts. In comparison, against Scotland they won 100% of their scrums and 87.5% of their lineouts. Now maybe this isn’t entirely comparable as South Africa are known for their dominance in set pieces, especially in scrums, but it does show promise. Equally, in the 2022 Six Nations, England only scored 8 tries throughout the entire tournament, a number which they have already achieved in the first two matches.
England looked much more promising in their most recent game against Italy, however their tournament is only going to get more difficult. Italy did not turn up to Twickenham in the same way they did against France the previous week and their lack of discipline helped England a lot.
England’s next game consists of a trip to Cardiff to play a team who have something to show after a miserable first two games. After that, they have Ireland and France, the current first and second ranked teams in the world. It will be interesting to see how England fare in what will be three tough matches.
Image: JaCastro7 via Wikimedia Commons