England have developed an ‘us against the world’ mentality

Twickenham Stadium, London, Britain - March 9, 2024 England's Danny Care with teammates
England head into the final round of the Six Nations with the championship still on the line - Reuters/Hannah McKay

When the England squad returned from Edinburgh, smarting from the defeat by Scotland, Steve Borthwick wanted to know the answer to one question above all: why the players had departed from the pre-match script?

The handling errors that had scarred their defeat had caught everyone by surprise. England had raced into a 10-point lead, but it was a misleading opening. As the ball kept going down, so did the game plan as England went into themselves.

“The review showed the start and the way we intended to play,” said Borthwick. “Then we looked at the impact that a mistake or two mistakes had. The players started playing differently and started playing within themselves.

“I used the expression that they started playing small. And that led to more mistakes, people doing different things. The number one point in that review was that the players have got to keep playing big. The weight of the shirt can’t make them play small. Mistakes are going to happen, but I intended the players to continue to put their point of difference on the pitch.”

It was a “seminal” moment for the England head coach. With Ireland up next at Twickenham, he could have read the riot act. Instead, he backed the players. Borthwick decided to double down on a ‘no-fear’ culture. They were told they would only be called out if they bottled it. Now more than ever was the time to play with no fear.

To underscore the no fear mindset was the decision to back the young players. In came Immanuel Feyi-Waboso on the wing, George Furbank was retained, George Martin was thrust into the heart of the pack, Alex Mitchell, a Borthwick protégé, returned at scrum-half.

England's scrum half Alex Mitchell offloads the ball during the Six Nations international rugby union match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium in south-west London, on March 9, 2024.
Alex Mitchell excelled at scrum-half against Ireland - AFP/Adrian Dennis

The victory over Ireland dispelled concerns that Borthwick is overly obsessed by data with heads up rugby coming to the fore after criticism of a “data straitjacket” from former England captain Will Carling in these pages. While the England head coach retains his old-school values – strong set-piece, respect territory – he is evolving too, realising he needs to use a multitude of techniques available to him to maximise performance of Gen-Z players. Data to explain ‘why’ the team is doing certain things remains critical, but it is married with a freedom to play what is in front of them.

Critical to the Ireland game plan was the ability to close out the ‘white noise’ alongside trusting the system. Only one of those worked fully, though. Criticism still leaked in and ended up fuelling the side, as it has done for many England teams past.

When England No 8 Ben Earl had a pop at the critics during his man-of-the-match post-match interview, it brought back memories of when Nick Easter mimicked Nick Faldo by thanking the “press from the heart of my bottom” following England’s shock victory over Australia in Marseille the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 2007.

“You guys have given us the siege mentality we needed to pull off this win,” said Easter, after John O’Neill, who was the chief executive of the Australian Rugby Union at the time, had claimed that everyone hated England.

But Easter, who is now coaching Chinnor and forwards coach for the USA Eagles after losing his job when Worcester Warriors went bust, insists that ‘underdoggery’ only gets a team so far. Easter insists that England’s next step forward must be to evolve any grievance mindset to become comfortable with being favourites.

England head coach Steve Borthwick before the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium in London, England
Borthwick is an excellent motivator of his players - Getty Images/Harry Murphy

“This could be a turning point in where we go forward for the next few years,” said Easter. “There have been a few false dawns before. I am reluctant to call this one a false dawn given what the coaching staff have tried to do since the World Cup – wanting to play with more ball in hand or threaten, play at pace, play with ambition with a little bit of risk. It is not something we have seen from England teams in the last four years, we are generally a conservative nation.

“It [the Ireland victory] was a seminal moment in terms of our style of play and putting it all together and having the power of our convictions to push the envelope and stretch teams. The question is are we able to summon up that same emotional energy and accuracy for when we aren’t favourites? Because ultimately you want to be the favourite. You want to be the best in the world, you want to be hunted and it’s how you deal with that.

“So we know Steve Borthwick’s good at getting them going, printing off what people have said in the press. Human nature dictates – especially in a physical confrontational sport that you’re going to go to another level and you are at home as well. But they also need to be making sure they’re consistent in delivering that so when they’re expected to win, what if a side does that to them? How are they going to react?”

The bookmakers still have France favourites for this latest iteration of ‘Le Crunch’, with their 1,000kg pack and having finally, seemingly, got over their World Cup sulk. However, a week of having praise heaped on England will certainly challenge the ‘us against the world’ mentality that underscored the biggest win of Borthwick’s career. After what could prove to be a defining couple of weeks for Borthwick’s tenure, win or lose, you can bet that England will stick to the script.

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