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England hit back at Will Carling’s ‘data straitjacket’ claim

England's Dan Cole points during the 2024 Six Nations match against Wales at Twickenham
Dan Cole says the full data is filtered down so players are not overloaded - Getty Images/Bob Bradford

England have denied they are stifled by statistics under Steve Borthwick, insisting their handling errors in the defeat by Scotland were “an anomaly” that can be addressed against Ireland.

In an exclusive interview with Telegraph Sport this week, former England captain Will Carling claimed Borthwick’s charges were stuck in a “data straitjacket” that frustrated players.

Dan Cole and Kevin Sinfield led a robust defence of their head coach on Tuesday at Pennyhill Park. Both were key figures as Leicester Tigers won the Premiership under Borthwick in 2022, and clearly still believe in the methods that have been adopted by England.

“The coaches have the full data and it gets filtered down into metrics to go after the game,” Cole said. “I have a relationship with Steve where if I say ‘can I see the data?’, then he will give me the book.

“But, as players it’s all filtered down. It’s not like we’re going onto the field thinking: ‘Ooh, this fly-half kicks it 40 per cent of the time. He’s passed it once and run it once so now I’m going to get him.’

“The data is filtered down and put into the game plan so we’re not thinking about stuff, we’re just doing it.’”

Most damaging to England’s prospects at Murrayfield, Cole argued, was a glut of fumbles and knock-ons, one of which led directly to Duhan van der Merwe’s second try in the Six Nations defeat. Cole also suggested that, after a period of change among the playing squad and coaching set-up since the World Cup, England still need to hone fundamental aspects of their game, such as defence and kicking, that have proven critical to success in Test matches.

England captain Jamie George speaks as the team huddle after defeat by Scotland at Murrayfield
Captain Jamie George speaks as England huddle after defeat at Murrayfield - Getty Images/Dan Mullan

“‘Stifled’ is the wrong [word],” added the 36-year-old tighthead prop, who said Ireland represented “phenomenal” opponents. “We want to win games of rugby and that’s the thing; the key metric in winning rugby is to concede fewer points.

“Yes, you want to score tries, but there are key metrics you have to get right first – exits, set-piece – which we’re trying to go after. Test rugby is different to anything else, it’s a different game to the Premiership and a different game to Europe. Every game is an arm wrestle so we have to get the key metrics right. For a team like we are at the minute, we have go through and learn it.

“Even at the World Cup, our warm-up games were rubbish and the penny didn’t drop until we were at the World Cup that if we get this and this right, we will be in games. And then you have to back yourself to do it.

“There’s an evolution process where you want to grow your game and become more fluid in attack, but we’ve been together for three games, there’s a lot of different players.

“The data leads and, with Steve, it shows what allows you to win games, but the players have to bring it to life and can’t give away 20 unforced errors, knock-ons or turnovers in a Test match … because the data will tell you that if you do that you will lose the game.”

‘Stats won’t tell you how good a leader somebody is’

Sinfield maintained “every club side and every international team use data and stats to some degree, whether those are actual metrics from a game or GPS”. He acknowledged that Borthwick and his coaching lieutenants always need to look beyond the numbers and use their intuition.

“Clearly, some of the data is important for us,” said Sinfield. “Clearly, there’s a lot of things in the data as well, that just are irrelevant, and you have to get rid of. It’s understanding what makes a difference for us and helps us win. And what helps us prepare the team the best, but also within that, not ignoring what we see. And not ignoring the field.

“Now, I mean, our stats can take you so far, but they won’t tell you how good a leader somebody is. They won’t tell you the influence somebody has on the field, they won’t tell you how much somebody talks on the field. These are all things we look out for when we’re training.

“And I’d like to think our coaching team has a decent enough handle on most aspects. That’s what the best coaching teams have, don’t they? They’re able to pull all different facets together and get to the right point.”

Sinfield admitted he was at a loss to explain some of the mistakes that punctuated England’s 30-21 loss to Scotland, yet feels confident their subsequent training sessions have confronted those shortcomings.

“We’ve had a real focus on catch and pass, stripped a lot of it down to the bare bones as you’d expect,” he said. “When you’re in big games, it’s those little bits that make a big difference.

“I think it was an anomaly and we’ve worked particularly hard in trying to understand that. Some of it is difficult to understand. When you’re trying to understand why someone’s dropped a ball, or someone’s thrown a pass without looking where the pass is going, there’s a bit more to it than the numbers.

“We’re trying to understand the people, what they are feeling and what they are seeing at that moment in time. We’ve delved pretty deep into that.”

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