Earnest England missing Test-match villains to ruin Ireland’s Grand Slam party in Six Nations
England’s Aviva Stadium mission tomorrow would be sorely boosted by the addition of a clutch of archetypal bad guys.
Steve Borthwick’s earnest Red Rose men will set out to spoil Ireland’s Grand Slam party in Dublin, yet they will do so without any recognised Test-match villains. Every classic England era in the international game has been punctuated by a nucleus of central casting spoilers, who know just how to ruin an opponent’s day.
From Wade Dooley through to Martin Johnson, all the best England teams have boasted a number of tight-forwards who seem almost entirely focused on niggle. Such absolute head-wreckers could ruin the opposition’s day, while at the same time keeping their own cool and helping England take control.
For all the quality in the current England ranks, there appears no one able to fill that brief in the classic style — and head coach Borthwick’s side are all the poorer because of it.
Make no mistake, Ireland are rightly streets ahead of the rest of the world and fully deserving of their global No1 status. Andy Farrell has whipped Ireland into some shape, while at the same time removing the edge of niggle and panic that had beset the final days of the Joe Schmidt era.
However, even all that progress cannot stop tomorrow’s hosts having the odd twitch about a chance to make history by completing a Grand Slam in Dublin. And England ought to have several forwards nasty enough, and emotionally intelligent enough, to pounce on any ounce of fear.
Maro Itoje would likely fill that role at his absolute peak, but in fairness to the Saracens lock, he has been dealing with a low-grade health issue. Ellis Genge is the mad-dog prop who grew up around enough hard-knocks stories to take up the mantle, and yet even the Bristol prop has been curiously subdued.
Test teams are always hewn in the image of their coach, and to that end England follow Borthwick’s focused and detailed approach. But the boss also has an air of the dutiful about him. And while that is always to his credit as one of the best human beings in rugby, it is not an attribute that will help his engine-room enforcers assert their authority tomorrow.
So, England must bring back the dark arts; those grey-area interventions that contravene the laws of the game but are also not great enough to trouble the officials. England’s best have always got away with rugby murder in terms of refereeing responses, with 2003 World Cup-winner Richard Hill chief among them.
England’s current crop tend to be picked up on even the slightest infraction. That has to change — and fast. Borthwick’s men have got to get cute with handling the officials, especially at the breakdown.
Ireland are the masters in that facet of the game, rucking at breakneck speed to retain their own ball in supreme fashion. England must not only find a way to spoil the hosts when in possession, but also to impose their own tackle-area rhythm on Farrell’s men.
Johnny Sexton’s final Six Nations match has all the hallmarks of a fairytale goodbye for the veteran fly-half. The 37-year-old will retire after the autumn’s World Cup, upon which he will move into the business world. The Lions playmaker has made peace with his impending Test rugby end, and wants solely to go out in style.
Ireland have embraced Sexton’s personal end point in a way that previous Emerald Isle teams would have studiously avoided. Head coach Farrell has purposely challenged his Ireland players to embrace any kind of pressure, and walking towards those emotional drivers has helped catapult his side to No1 in the world Test rankings.
Sexton’s big day could wind up representing some kind of presidential inauguration if England cannot put any limit on Ireland’s power. How players such as Hill or Neil Back would have relished the opportunity to get out there and ruin the veteran’s big day, and take on fully the role of pantomime villain.
Only a performance that as a minimum restores pride and saves face will put England anywhere near the course required to do themselves justice at the World Cup
Lewis Ludlam and Jack Willis are able flankers and worthy of great respect for their attitude. But both England back-rowers could do with taking their Test approach to the next level, by way of building in that absolute dog element that opposition teams simply hate to play against.
This represents England’s last competitive match before World Cup 2023 begins. Only a performance that as a minimum restores pride and saves face will put England anywhere near the course required to do themselves justice in France in the autumn.
Last weekend’s France hammering might be just about acceptable as a one-off from which England learn, but even then that is pushing it, given that the seven-try shaming was England’s record home loss. Borthwick and Co can ill afford any kind of repeat of the manner and scale of that defeat, yet on paper Ireland are superior to Les Bleus.
England have talked outwardly in a calm, composed fashion about how to move past last weekend’s horror-show at Twickenham. The viewing public can only hope that, privately, England have torn strips off each other to force a major mental and physical shift, starting in Dublin.