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"It is difficult to say who we truly are," the ongoing search for an identity continues for England, according to sports journalist Gerard Meagher.
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“It is difficult to say who we truly are,” the ongoing search for an identity continues for England, according to sports journalist Gerard Meagher.


What is England’s desired identity? What is their goal? How do their opponents view them and what reputation are they attempting to establish? The difficulty in answering these inquiries highlights the challenge faced by Steve Borthwick’s team as they head into the final two challenging Six Nations matches.

To approach it differently, attempt summarizing England in one statement. It’s a simpler job for many of their competitors: Ireland is a well-coordinated, unwavering team. Wales is resilient and spirited, Scotland is dangerous on the counterattack. Outside of the Six Nations, South Africa is a team that breaks through the front door, and New Zealand combines speed and skill unlike any other. But England?

“It’s difficult to define the team,” said Sam Underhill, known for his intellectual prowess and eloquence as a member of the squad. This week, he found it challenging to accurately describe the team. “It’s a struggle to have such a strong understanding of ourselves,” he stated.

“We aim to be a strong, physical team with a strong focus on the set pieces. Our defense has always been a priority for us. As for our offense, we are constantly working on developing and improving it. It’s difficult for me to say exactly what our team is like because I am a part of it. I don’t have an outsider’s perspective. That is what we are working towards.”

Part of the problem is Borthwick’s insistence that each game plan is tailored specifically to the opposition. All teams do that to a degree but the constant shape‑shifting makes it all the more difficult to forge an identity and leaves England open to the kind of accusations, made by Will Carling this week, that they are overreliant on data and, by association, what it says about their opponents.

The issue is worsened as England constantly work towards unity, yet have players from 10 different clubs, each with their own individual thoughts, ideas, and styles. This problem has been heavily discussed this week due to Ireland being seen as the opposite – a team that effortlessly possesses cohesion due to their domestic structure.

Steve BorthwickView image in fullscreen

Dan Cole acknowledges that England is often compared to Ireland, who have been playing together for a long time and have a strong attacking game. He points out that Irish players have the advantage of knowing each other’s style due to playing together regularly year-round. On the other hand, the England team has to come together for specific tournaments and face the challenge of incorporating new players from different teams with varying styles. This diversity can be beneficial, but it also poses a challenge to get everyone to play in sync with the England team’s style, sometimes conflicting with individual or club instincts.

When it is challenging to come to an agreement, it becomes even harder to maintain it when issues arise. This was evident in the defeat against Scotland, as Maro Itoje criticized his fellow teammates for playing too carefully and recklessly. This suggests that some players reacted to Scotland’s first try by playing without any strategy, while others preferred a more direct approach.

The strict game strategy used in England’s warm-up matches for the World Cup was causing issues, as players began to question its effectiveness. However, once they reached France, they took on a more aggressive mentality in response to criticism for losing to Fiji at home. As a result, the team fully embraced the heavy use of kicks in their gameplay. Although not well-liked, at least England had a strong sense of their identity.

During the pool stages, Courtney Lawes was asked about this and his answer was clear. He stated, “We are a strong defensive team and that is our foundation. We excel at aerial kicking and retrieving the ball.”

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Since then England have overhauled their defensive system. They say they are looking to be more expansive with ball in hand yet, according to reports, are spending little time practising it and made a staggering 25 handling errors against Scotland. They have not scored more than two tries in a game since putting Chile to the sword last September and though we hear words like “transition” and talk of World Cup cycles, England are staring down the barrel of a fourth successive Six Nations with only two wins.

The current challenge is difficult to overcome and despite the opinions of the Rugby Football Union, the introduction of “hybrid” contracts next season is not a guaranteed solution.

One could argue that Borthwick should have remained steadfast and continued with the simple yet successful strategy that led them to the semi-finals of the World Cup. Without a consistent identity, it becomes increasingly challenging for players to be on the same page. If they lack a set method or unique style of play to rely on, as was the case at Murrayfield, the risk of unraveling becomes greater.

On Saturday, England will enter the home game as significant underdogs. This type of match typically benefits England, as they excel at hindering high-quality opponents rather than forcing their own game plan. However, Carling is not the only one speaking out recently, and criticism is mounting. While there are multiple ways to lose, a loss in this match could place Borthwick’s job in genuine jeopardy for the first time.

Source: theguardian.com