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Borthwick faces kicker conundrum after Smith misses cost England | Robert Kitson
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Borthwick faces kicker conundrum after Smith misses cost England | Robert Kitson

Anyone who has ever played sport knows that desperate sinking feeling. One minute the world is a wonderful place and you are doing what you love most. Then, out of nowhere, it all goes completely Pete Tong. That costly lapse in concentration, that tiny missed putt, that simple dropped catch. Heartbreak is as much a part of the game – perhaps more so – as heroism or happiness.

And the more extravagantly talented the individual, the worse it can be. Higher standards are demanded. They can suddenly be accused of letting down not just their team-mates but the entire country. Television cameras highlight every facial twitch. And here come the rest of the media pack to pick over the entrails, particularly if the scoreboard says the moment of fallibility was the difference between winning and losing. Call it the Riddle Of Rory McIlroy.

At which point there tend to be two schools of thought. One is that dealing with savage disappointment makes people more likely to succeed in future. It’s not the waking nightmare that matters, it’s how you respond to it. Just keep doing what you do. To err is human. Sooner or later, the wheel of fate will spin back in your favour, dissolving self-doubt and building character quicker than you can say Rudyard Kipling.

Alternatively, particularly in professional team sport, there is a ruthless call to be made. Does a coach keep faith with the batter who keeps nicking off when well set? Or the experienced striker who hasn’t scored in a dozen games? Or the gifted fly-half whose iffy goalkicking has just enabled the All Blacks to avoid an historic defeat? Fair play to old Rudyard but surely he knows modern-day sport is a results business?

Welcome to the delicate crossroads at which Steve Borthwick, England’s rugby head coach, now sits. His footballing counterpart Gareth Southgate has been there for weeks already. And, who knows, maybe the latter’s backing of certain individuals was among the key ingredients underpinning the penalty shootout win over Switzerland? Hit or miss, you’re still my number one. Which is clearly a subject in which Southgate himself has a masters degree.

Borthwick, quite rightly, was also at pains not to hang his No 10 Marcus Smith out to dry after Saturday’s frustrating 16-15 defeat by New Zealand. Looked at over the course of an entire season, these things usually even themselves out. Who landed that late winning drop goal against Ireland at Twickenham in March? Who twinkled in Japan last month?

But where the argument grows thornier is when the whole team is starting to endure a succession of near misses. Since late October Borthwick’s side have lost by a single point to both South Africa and New Zealand and by two points to France. True, they have also beaten Ireland by a point, Wales by two points and Italy by three points this year but, of those, only the Irish were ranked above them. In a game of continually shrinking margins, a pattern is becoming visible.

Henry Slade kicks a penalty for EnglandView image in fullscreen

It could be just a reality check. If your glass is half-full, Borthwick’s young side are not a million miles away from the world’s best. Remember all those painful defeats Clive Woodward’s team had to endure en route to becoming world beaters in 2003? Keep the faith. But, equally, South Africa secured last year’s World Cup by virtue of three successive single-point knockout wins. It was no accident, just as England’s frustrating near misses are not all down to the vagaries of the fates.

Which was the blunt point made by the England No 8 Ben Earl following another whirlwind of a personal display in Dunedin on Saturday night. Competitors like him want to be winners now, not in six or nine months’ time. “It is very clear we are progressing but now we have got to start winning these close games,” said Earl. And if the players and management are brutally honest that means recognising that Saturday’s loss exposed a couple of home truths.

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Some bases are impossible to cover overnight. With Joe Marler and Ellis Genge injured, Mako Vunipola off to France and Dan Cole on his farewell Sinatra-like tour of the world’s leading venues, England urgently need to unearth some new prop idols. Hopefully Saturday’s debutant Fin Baxter will be one, with a few other likely lads currently involved in this year’s U20 squad. Greater bench impact would also clearly help.

But at least one quick fix is readily available. England had a goalkicker in their starting XV against the All Blacks who has succeeded with 29 of his last 30 attempts at goal and has been lasering over pressure kicks for Exeter from all angles all season. Some of us wrote before the tour that Henry Slade should be used as a goalkicker and Saturday scarcely diluted that case.

The counter-argument is that Smith’s confidence could be affected if the goal-kicking duties were to be shared or temporarily taken away. But what if it helps to sharpen both his own game and the team’s collective prospects instead? It is not being even slightly disloyal to Smith, an 85% kicker at Test level prior to Saturday’s costly three misses, to hope he stays at 10 at Eden Park this weekend but hands over the kicking tee to the currently in-form Slade. Because international sport is not about one person’s potentially bruised ego. It is about improving the collective and giving a team the absolute best chance of victory. Now is the time for Borthwick’s England to show they really are serious about kicking on.

Source: theguardian.com