How England will develop ‘Borthball 2.0’

(Left to right) Felix Jones, Steve Borthwick and Ben Earl

Steve Borthwick puts plenty of stock in data, so here is an arresting statistic from the 2023 World Cup. According to Stats Perform, his England side made 286 fewer running metres than Scotland over the course of the tournament, even though they featured in three more matches than Gregor Townsend’s men.

As factoids go, what a zinger. Should it bother Borthwick, though? No. Well, not in isolation. Borthwick probably hit par at the World Cup when one takes into account everything he inherited – a short build-up balanced by a favourable draw. To persist with the golf analogy, England lipped out with a birdie putt. Their semi-final display against South Africa was astute and steely, but they fell agonisingly short when it mattered.

What comes next, from here to 2027, will shape Borthwick’s legacy. England are bidding to add tactical nuances to a revamped coaching team and renewed squad featuring a replacement for Owen Farrell as captain and front-line fly-half.

Respecting World Cup foundations

Delving back into data from Stats Perform, the frequency of England’s kicking at the World Cup is starkly highlighted by two metrics. Their ratio of running metres to kicking metres was the smallest across the tournament at 0.65 – 4,920 running metres compared to 6,610 kicking metres.

Additionally, their tally of rucks per kick while in possession (2.06) was the lowest of all 20 teams at the World Cup.

To add context, that ranking is heavily influenced by three matches: the two victories over Argentina and the tight loss to the Springboks. England were in possession for an aggregate of 190 rucks during those encounters and put boot to ball 129 times; around two kicks for every three rucks.

Territory, quite clearly, was the chief tactical concern. That said, anyone who branded England’s approach as overkill – or overkick – would do well to remember the last quarter against the Springboks. In the 58th minute, a quintessential passage of ‘pressure plus’ rugby, suiting the weather conditions, presented a chance to build a decisive lead.

From close to England’s 10-metre line, with his team 15-6 up, Danny Care strikes an excellent box-kick. Jonny May chases, climbing above Willie le Roux to deflect the ball backwards to Ben Earl. The dynamic back-rower gobbles up the loose ball and feeds Owen Farrell:

As a mark of how in-tune England’s players are with their game plan, Earl immediately points towards the far corner, knowing that will be an opportunity to turn South Africa and find more space:


Sure enough, Farrell locates that space. With Elliot Daly and Joe Marchant pursuing the grubber, Kurt-Lee Arendse spills:

England have a scrum put-in around six metres from the Springboks try line. Rather than extend their nine-point advantage, though, they are penalised after a re-set. This is the cue for South Africa to assert set-piece dominance. Further scrum penalties help them add 10 more points and send them into the final thanks to a nerveless Handre Pollard.

It is difficult to blame kicking for England’s exit. An undercooked up-and-under from Freddie Steward, which the full-back spilled, did give South Africa the fateful put-in:

Perhaps Steward did not want to send the ball too long because the Springboks had called for a scrum from a mark minutes before. Either way, this was a case of execution falling slightly short rather than the gameplan failing. And it is important not to be too reductive about Borthwick’s overall strategy, which he and the players – in their own feedback on the campaign – labelled as “a foundation”.

Besides the kicking game, England excelled at the line-out, particularly within the mauling exchanges, and made shrewd decisions around the breakdown. They were dogged, industrious and disciplined. Together, those things make you tough to beat. Borthwick evidently believed such a template represented England’s best chance of progressing. The tournament vindicated his hunch. Maintaining those traits – as far as possible given the personnel available – and expanding horizons, gradually, will be the intention for 2024 and beyond.

“If you have got to change quickly, [you have to change] the foundation of the team,” Borthwick explained on Thursday. “You make sure your defence is right, make sure your kicking game is right, your set-piece is right, your breakdown is right. You do those things and you can compete. The next thing that comes off that is that breakdown, making sure you have got speed of ball and developing your attack. Then you can start adding nuances to your kicking game and nuances to your defence and pose the opposition problems.”

Fresh perspectives on attack

Skeptics may question Borthwick’s capacity to drive evolution. Thus far, his biggest achievement as a head coach, alongside many of the backroom lieutenants he brought to England, has been the Premiership title with Leicester Tigers in 2022. During that season, the East Midlands club averaged 1.96 rucks per kick – comfortably the lowest mark in the league. Gloucester, with 2.26, were the next lowest and Saracens, with 2.49, were one rung above them.

Tigers’ ratio of running metres to kicking metres was also the Premiership’s smallest by some distance. Figures from Stats Perform show that throughout the campaign, they carried for 8,758 metres and kicked for a whopping 29,226. Fitness, disruptive defence, set-piece accuracy and ferocious carrying were Leicester’s pillars. Territorial kicking underpinned everything. This hoist from Ben Youngs, which initially drew boos at Twickenham, brought about Freddie Burns’ famous drop-goal after Ollie Chessum recovered possession:

Felix Jones should prove to be a more transformative recruit than the last one that England acquired from the Springboks. Four years ago, Eddie Jones brought in Matt Proudfoot, who had been South Africa’s scrum coach for the 2019 World Cup triumph. After three years that yielded very little in the way of discernible set-piece improvements from England, Proudfoot was moved on when Borthwick arrived at Twickenham.

Unassuming yet fiercely diligent, Felix Jones has earned rave reviews for his work in two successive World Cup victories for the Springboks. He offers an outside perspective, yet is also a close friend of Aled Walters from their stint together at Munster. Such familiarity can help him hit the ground running in the position of defence coach, not that his remit will be as narrow as that.

Aled Walters, Jacques Nienaber and Felix Jones
Aled Walters (left), Jacques Nienaber (centre) and Felix Jones (right) celebrate South Africa's victory over England in the 2019 World Cup final - Getty Images

First off, if Jones brings aspects of South Africa’s renowned blitz, we can expect an aggressive defensive system, with wings pressing high up the pitch and quirks like designated ‘shooters’ and scrum-halves granted special licence to harry. Theoretically, this should cause opponents to cough up turnovers and, therefore, chances to attack in broken-field scenarios. Secondly, Borthwick stressed his desire for “connected” coaching and suggested that Jones will dovetail with Richard Wigglesworth, England’s attack coach since last summer.

“The way that [Jones] and Jacques Nienaber coached together for the Springboks was very close – attack versus defence, defence versus attack and the kicking game between the two of them,” said Borthwick. “Clearly, they did a very, very good job.”

“What’ll happen is that Felix and Wiggy will work really closely together,” Borthwick added. “The attack and defence are on the pitch working against each other to work for each other. That’s how the assistant coaches in the teams I run have worked.”

There is certainly room for improvement in England’s attack, despite some slick and incisive passages in 2023, of which Ben Earl’s try against Argentina was among the best examples:

England will not immediately emulate Ireland by imparting multi-faceted, intricate phase-attack. Evolution rather than drastic revolution appears more likely. That said, Andrew Strawbridge, the experienced consultant coming on board from the All Blacks, has been hailed as an expert at generating quick ball. It was telling that Ethan Roots and Greg Fisilau, as well as clubmate Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, were two of the first names to be volunteered – with very little prompting – by Borthwick last week.

Roots and Fisilau are both combative, mobile back-rowers. Earlier this season, Exeter Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter hailed the latter’s ability to slide off tackles. This habit, borne out of innate athleticism and balance, often allows a Fisilau carry to create a quick breakdown in heavy traffic despite not eating up too many metres. And the 20-year-old is relentless. He registered 12 carries for 24 metres against Munster in the Champions Cup, a week after making 11 metres from 12 carries in Toulon. In the same game, Roots, a resourceful blindside flanker capable of jumping in the line-out, accrued 14 metres from 11 carries.

Exeter Chiefs are spending less time in possession this season, but forwards do not thrive there without being tough on the ball and busy. Borthwick, who may regret picking Billy Vunipola on the bench over Lewis Ludlam for the World Cup semi-final, will lean on the expertise of Strawbridge to energise England’s phase attack. Quick rucks create tries and represent vital currency at any level.

Alex Mitchell, the free-spirited scrum-half who crafted his kicking game maturely to fit Borthwick’s World Cup template, could have his leash loosened. When conditions allow, he is perfectly suited to injecting zip. At Sandy Park on Saturday, he shredded Exeter, picking off tight-five forwards by sniping against the grain following a midfield carry from a line-out, before staying calm in open field to set up Ollie Sleightholme:

Time in the saddle breeds confidence. Mitchell now owns 11 caps and will surely feel freer and more comfortable in an England shirt as a result.

Adding a different dimension through selection

A grounding under Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus is sure to have given Felix Jones an open mind as far as conventional positions. To deploy a seven-one bench split, for instance, the Springboks trusted the irrepressible Kwagga Smith to cover the back line and Cheslin Kolbe to step in at scrum-half. Borthwick has thrown curveballs previously and may want to shake things up.

Though Eddie Jones has endured rough results of late, his comments about England in an exclusive interview for Telegraph Sport last year were thought-provoking.

“When you are playing that really attritional sort of rugby, you have to have some X-factor in your kick-return and the rest of your play,” he said.

“Look at South Africa. Their forwards don’t pass; they run hard and their backs kick. But then they have brilliant counter-attackers in [Cheslin] Kolbe, [Kurt-Lee] Arendse. Willie le Roux is a smart player. They have something a little bit different about them.

“That’s what I was searching for with England, a little bit of difference. Where you get that bad kick and you can go on it, you make them pay.”

Eddie Jones argued that he was trying to bring English rugby beyond the “bread and butter” foundation that Borthwick has leant upon. It is not unfair to suggest that England require spark. By picking Marcus Smith at full-back for the World Cup quarter-final against Fiji, Borthwick did attempt to embolden his side, and specifically their kick-return. The inclusion of Earl also added dynamism.

Ben Earl in action for Saracens
Ben Earl (right) is a dynamic back-rower for Saracens and England - Getty Images

Teams underpin their tactics with flagship selections. Ireland, for instance, implemented their current style with Jamison Gibson-Park at scrum-half and a roaming, resourceful back three of James Lowe, Mack Hansen and Hugo Keenan. After a wobbly period, New Zealand galvanised themselves by installing Jordie Barrett at inside centre, Shannon Frizell at blindside flanker and promoting two new props in Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax.

Arendse, an elusive and explosive former Sevens player like Kolbe, established himself for the Springboks in the year prior to the last World Cup. Put simply, he makes South Africa more threatening, especially when fielding loose kicks. Against England in the semi-final, he was almost released from a canny line-out move that aimed to isolate Dan Cole at the front. Felix Jones’ fingerprints were conspicuous:

Given they should have a sturdy line-out platform, and a brawny maul, England should be able to unfurl a few innovative strike moves of their own.

Spinal surgery and splitting the cycle

Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs and Jonny May have retired from the Test arena. Farrell is taking a spell away and there are injuries to Tom Curry and Manu Tuilagi. Others, including Jack Willis, Joe Marchant and Henry Arundell, are ineligible until they re-join an English club. This offers scope for Borthwick to alter the squad for the coming Six Nations. First, Farrell.

The decision of who starts at fly-half out of George Ford, Marcus Smith or Fin Smith looms large. All three are versatile enough to guide different gameplans according to conditions and other factors. Ford probably has the greatest variation in his kicking game, with Marcus Smith the most dangerous runner. Fin Smith, neat and decisive for Northampton Saints, has a cool head and immense potential. Borthwick did not rule out further game-time at full-back for Marcus Smith, either, which would enable him to field two of these string-pullers.

Even if his move to Racing 92 transpires, Farrell may well return to the fold before 2027. He would turn 36 during the next World Cup. Whether or not he heads to the Top 14, Farrell’s sabbatical should give a new fly-half – and a new captain such as Jamie George – space to assert themselves. Borthwick has voiced his desire to bring back Arundell and Marchant towards the end of the four-year cycle. Farrell could find himself in the same boat. Prior to that, though, other backs have an opportunity to nail down positions.

In the pack, Lawes’s absence will inevitably lead to a different back-five configuration because the storied Northampton Saint, still playing phenomenally well, developed such a rare blend of attributes – elusive carrying and breakdown disruption to complement line-out jumping and dominant tackling.

Perhaps England will plump for a blindside like Tom Pearson or Roots rather than a hybrid lock-flanker. Then again, Borthwick will be tempted to field the mean trio of Maro Itoje, George Martin and Ollie Chessum together, with one of them wearing six. The latter two for Leicester Tigers were superb on Saturday against Saracens and Itoje has been commanding at times since the World Cup. Regarding the back row, never count out Sam Underhill. In Farrell and Lawes, England have lost a pair of defensive figureheads and could do with tone-setting leaders.

Courtney Lawes
The retirement of Courtney Lawes will require a back-five revamp - AFP

Enterprise and collective urgency in ‘transition situations’ – with turnover ball or from regathered kicks – must be a priority. A rapid, evasive runner in the back three would shake things up, provided they are given licence to trust their instincts and stretch their legs. Feyi-Waboso and Tommy Freeman were praised by Borthwick last week. Both roam around the pitch and posses handy aerial skills. As a whole, the back line will be rebalanced.

With a centre partnership of Tuilagi and Marchant in the same line-up as Steward at full-back at the World Cup, England did not move the ball wide too sharply. Solidity, over the ground and in the air, was deemed more important. Henry Slade and Ollie Lawrence have combined previously in the England midfield and George Furbank, in exceptional form for Northampton Saints, has pressed his case as a secondary playmaker.

Flitting to the front row, England’s reliance on Dan Cole and Joe Marler at the sharp end of the World Cup was an admission that the scrum was vulnerable. Borthwick wants these veterans available for the Six Nations as well. Though the England head coach was able to rattle off a cohort of young looseheads, featuring Fin Baxter, Phil Brantingham and Tarek Haffar, all of these prospects, as well as Asher Opoku-Fordjour at tighthead, will need time and care on their introduction to the biggest stage. Borthwick spoke passionately about England A and is bound to make use of February’s outing against Portugal, as well as any other fixtures for the second-string. Joe Heyes, another tighthead, has now amassed 135 first-team appearances for Leicester at the tender age of 24. You sense he has served his apprenticeship.

Winning hearts and minds on a tough schedule

Across 2022, the final year of Eddie Jones, England’s average number of rucks per kick swelled to 3.2. However, this can be attributed in part to inefficient phase play and their crippling inability to convert pressure in the opposition 22. A low number of rucks per kick does not necessarily equate to an unimaginative performance.

On the way to their respective wins at Twickenham in 2023, Scotland and France married patience with panache. Scotland had just 62 rucks in possession and kicked 42 times (1.57 rucks per kick). France dished up a 53-10 thrashing despite kicking 42 times and recording 71 rucks (1.69 rucks per kick). When chances arose, from deep counters and with field position, both attacked brilliantly, using the boot creatively to manipulate England. As ever, kicking is forgotten – or forgiven – when it is complemented by accuracy with ball in hand.

This Bath try, from their December defeat of Harlequins, is a good example of capitalising on a transition situation. Ben Spencer’s high clearance is won back by Will Muir and Niall Annett before the ball is moved into midfield. Alfie Barbeary’s carry brings a quick ruck and the backs are unleashed. Max Ojomoh’s pull-back feeds Finn Russell, who watches both Louis Lynagh and Will Joseph push out of the defensive line before threading a pass to Lawrence.

Lawrence can tear upfield and send Joe Cokanasiga over:

One kick and two rucks make for a fabulous try; efficiency meets opportunism to delight fans.

Here, a week later, Gus Warr’s box-kick is gathered by an acrobatic Tom Roebuck. Sale Sharks maintain impetus with punchy phases before Ford sends Joe Carpenter slicing through:

Engaging supporters, as well as players, is a requirement of any coach. Good results help, obviously, and Borthwick has managed expectations with a sobering reminder that England have won 50 per cent of their Six Nations games (15 out of 30) in the past six years. In four tournaments – 2018, 2021, 2022 and 2023 – they have won just two matches.

England’s schedule in 2024 is such that all wins should be savoured. After starting the Six Nations with Italy away and Wales at home, they travel to Murrayfield for a pivotal round three. With Andrew Brace refereeing, the Calcutta Cup will be characterised by plenty of kicking as the teams look to nullify their opponents’ jackallers. If England overturn Scotland to snap a three-game losing streak against Townsend’s charges, they will not be too bothered about aesthetics.

From there, this run completes England’s year: Ireland (home), France (away), Japan (away), New Zealand (away), New Zealand (away), New Zealand (home), Australia (home), South Africa (home), undecided nation (home). Each win will be hard-earned. Sometimes, the end will justify the means. Yet fans are sure to yearn for pace, purpose and invention as well.

To build on the foundations of 2023, by maintaining momentum as England evolve, Borthwick has multiple plates to spin. He would expect nothing less.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.