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Can England Rugby rebuild in time for the 2023 World Cup?

After England's tough loss in the Calcutta cup against Scotland, is there enough time to rebuild the squad and get England back into the World Cup final?

The Rise and Fall of English Rugby

Eddie Jones took over as head coach of England in 2015; with a confident start to his career, he picked up a 17-game winning streak. Jones prided himself on his rapport with his players and his brutal training camps, confidently leading England to a Grand Slam and Six Nations win in 2016 followed by another Six Nations victory the year after. In 2018 England had a dip in their performance - journalists say it was down to complacency – when they dropped to fifth in the Six Nations.

When Jones faced his most important test, the Rugby World Cup in 2019, England fans and critics were uneasy about England's form.... They had not won a match between February and June yet he managed to turn his team around with a historic win over New Zealand, 19-7 in the semi-final with the 2015 world champion’s coach Hansen admitting 'We lost to the better team.' Although they lost to South Africa in the final, it was deemed a successful campaign for both the team and Jones and, on the back of this success, Jones signed an extension contract with England. With Jones’s win record at an all-time high of 72%, England was ranked as one of the most dangerous teams in the world.

The Downturn

Moving swiftly forward to 2022 and Jones’s win percentage dropped significantly to 42%. Not only had his win percentage dropped, but England was crashing down the rankings. After a disappointing result in the Six Nations, Jones’s position as head coach was hanging by a thread going into the Autumn Nations matches. The World Cup was looming and Jones had to prove he was the right man for the job. His first match was against Argentina. England had been victorious against the Pumas 19 times out of a total of 25 fixtures and the England fans had high hopes that their team would continue in a similar vein to these previous encounters especially as they were on home soil. However, England fell short by just 1 x point, losing 29-30. With ‘boos’ echoing around Twickenham, the pressure was rising for the RFU to try and find a new coach and attempt to restore the English dreams of winning the World Cup. Jones finished off the Autumn Nations, beating Japan, losing to South Africa, and scraping a draw with New Zealand. England rugby was in serious trouble if they wanted to be in the running as world champions.

Fresh Start

On the 6th of December, the RFU fired Eddie Jones as head coach. There was uncertainty about who would carry out the new head coach role until Steve Borthwick (the former Leicester Tigers coach) was announced as Jones's replacement. Unfortunately, Borthwick had just 11 days with the squad before he faced Scotland in the Calcutta Cup. 

Borthwick made his mark when he dropped the prestigious centre Manu Tuilagi while also dropping both wingers (Nowell and May) that played in the Autumn Nations only a few months earlier. These controversial decisions gave the fans an idea of how England would play. Borthwick’s game plan was to play quickly and get more men to the breakdown to avoid turnovers. Borthwick also brought Dan Cole (former England prop) into his training squad with the hope of helping the team improve their scrum. According to ESPN 2021-22, England's scrummaging was the worst in top-tier rugby.

The match against Scotland was a tough one for English fans to swallow. England looked strong on the attacking areas of the pitch. Borthwick’s idea to play quickly and to put Scotland on the back foot prevailed at first but unforced errors handed the initiative to Scotland who, coupled with some fine play of their own, ended up victorious.

The next challenge that England must face is against Italy. The Roses have defeated Italy every time they’ve faced off and England stand as the heavy favourite. The England faithful hope this match will be a simple penalty kick and boost morale but Italy played extremely well against a strong French team, coming within a whisker of turning them over.

Positives and Negatives of England Rugby

Borthwick and the RFU have made a significant change to the English schedule with the decision not to travel to the Algarve for their usual ten-day training camp before the Six Nations. Whether this proves to beneficial or not remains to be seen.

One of the benefits of the England squad is its depth of players; having such great depth in a one’s squad enables very effective rotation of players which keeps the players on the pitch fresh and allows the coaches to come up with varying ideas aimed at unsettling the opposition during matches. Further, having the most competitive league in the world (the Gallagher Premiership) certainly aids the development of home-grown players.

With the squad selection for the World Cup being finalised one month before the start of the tournament, it allows plenty of time for all the coaches to work and develop team tactics. It will be important for the new coaching team to settle in quickly, establish their own training methods, coordinate all the players and give the new players time to adapt to their new coaching staff. Having experienced players on the team will also benefit the younger players, as the World Cup is the pinnacle of rugby and can be a daunting experience. Borthwick must get his players not only physically but also psychologically prepared.

Having the opportunity to try the new set pieces and having more time with the players will help England become a more coherent team. With the proper training and developing all the players mental attitudes will be essential if England are to securing a good result in France. England have shone at World Cups; never more brightly than at the 2003 World Cup when they managed to beat the Australians with the magical Johnny Wilkinson drop goal. Even though the team England seems to be performing poorly, they will have plenty of time to adapt to their new training regimes, and in eight months, England can yet prove to be a severe threat in France.

Kit Henderson - Feb 10 2023

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