Rugby World Cup is a recipe for disaster unless England’s toothless attack finds bite


England are almost locked in a game of Can’t Attack, Won’t Attack in the phoney war of the Rugby World Cup warm-up schedule.

There is no Ainsley Harriott figure, however, to judge whether England are genuinely incapable of unlocking opposition defences or simply refusing to turn up the heat.

Even the ultra-enthusiastic TV chef would struggle to find enough plus points for a positive review of Steve Borthwick’s rugby recipe.

So, is the malaise by default or design? Would the risk-averse head coach really be prepared to roll the dice on an elaborate bluff?

One snapshot from Saturday’s 29-10 defeat by Ireland in Dublin certainly tempts the prospect. Courtney Lawes towered over Ireland’s lineout at the tail and, in a flash, Manu Tuilagi careered through midfield traffic.

The ball came back at such speed that, surely, England had to go round the corner and put Ireland under the pump.

But, of course, George Ford dropped as deep as possible into the pocket and launched a spiral bomb. Ireland mopped up easily — and England’s most intriguing play at the Aviva Stadium was over almost before it had begun.

A preordained sequence, but comprising opposite and jarring halves. England showed their Won’t Attack selves with the speed and power to send Tuilagi over the gainline, and their Can’t Attack counterfoil through Ford’s uber-prosaic hoisted kick.

Borthwick has had eight matches at the helm, five entirely crucial in the Six Nations and three half-chances to experiment in World Cup warm-ups. No tangible or substantive pattern of attack has yet revealed itself.

England frequently commit the wrong numbers to breakdowns, and those resourcing the rucks have too often been inaccurate with entry points and ineffective with cleanouts.

Ireland top the world rankings in part because of a trait ingrained by former boss Joe Schmidt. Every Ireland player has been drilled within an inch of their life on the most efficient and impactful rucking methodology: enter through the gate but splay a hip on the way through, and one attacker can take out two defenders at a single breakdown.

This is where Ireland’s ability to create crucial half-spaces on the edges all starts. When Ireland, France, New Zealand, South Africa — Scotland, too — cascade the ball through the backline to a waterfall score in the corner, it all starts with inches and angles up front.

England have not even scored a try from their backs in five hours and 53 minutes of Test rugby, let alone through fluent execution.

Ireland’s first try against England was ostensibly the product of just two passes, but at least eight of Ireland’s starting line-up had to be in exactly the right place at the right time for either to come off.

There still remains the chance for England to bring their game together in time.

If the best teams in the world are dancing all the way to the tryline, Borthwick’s England right now have two left feet. Attacking sequences have taken the likes of Ireland and World Cup hosts France years to hone.

England’s attacking game started to fall apart at the end of Eddie Jones’s reign. Under Borthwick, the foundations are not yet even in place.

Saturday’s final World Cup warm-up clash against Fiji has assumed greater significance almost by the day throughout a turbulent month for England. England have never been beaten by Fiji, but they have lost five of their past eight matches. A win has never been more paramount, to send England into the World Cup with some desperately needed momentum, but also to hand renewed hope to supporters.

Despite the doom and gloom, there still always remains the chance for England to bring their game together in time. The World Cup opener looms ever larger, in pressure-cooker Marseille on September 9.

All England need to do, though, is find any kind of way to topple the Pumas. Beat Michael Cheika’s side and this World Cup will start to open up for England and Borthwick.

Beat Japan in the second match, and England might even be able to find their groove against Chile, before another punishing encounter with Samoa. England have tried plenty of different attacking equations, but will not prove any of them without the right World Cup formula.