England to hold ‘unbelievably honest’ review after resorting to ‘hot potato’ rugby

Jamie George speaks while England's players are in a huddle after their defeat against Scotland
England were architects of their own downfall in their Calcutta Cup defeat at Murrayfield - Getty Images/Dan Mullan

Maro Itoje castigated England for resorting to playing “hot potato” at Murrayfield as bewildered head coach Steve Borthwick promised to hold an “unbelievably honest” review of the error-strewn defeat by Scotland.

England committed a staggering 25 handling errors in perfectly dry conditions at Murrayfield, which contributed to them committing 22 turnovers. Borthwick was at a loss to explain how England collapsed after building a 10-0 lead in a positive opening quarter as they slumped to a fourth consecutive defeat against their Auld Enemy.

“I would share the feelings of all the supporters,” Borthwick said. “That was not good enough. As we develop the team, there’s going to be bumps in the road. And today was a disappointment, a real disappointment.”

Itoje was similarly perplexed at why England lost control of the game after the first quarter but was clearly frustrated that the team started playing what he dismissively described as “tip-tap rugby”.

“I guess, from our point of view, we probably didn’t stick to the game plan,” Itoje said. “We started playing tip-tap rugby. We want to be a team that plays direct and is confrontational. Particularly the second half of the first half, we didn’t do that. We started playing hot potato and that is not what we want to do.

“I don’t necessarily have the answers right now. That is the next stage of our growth. We need to stay disciplined to what we want to do, stay disciplined to the plan we want to impose. In every game you have a plan and then the game throws challenges at you. The challenge is to impose your will even when those challenges are thrown at you. When the challenges were thrown at us, we deviated from the plan.

“Steve is a stern coach. He demands high standards and he is a stern coach. He is hot on detail. He is hot to correct when we deviate from the plan, especially when we deviate from the plan like we did today. We will have an honest and thorough review and take a step forward next week.”

England’s players will spend a couple of days with their families before they reassemble for a training camp in York where Borthwick will undertake what promises to be a grim review ahead of a foreboding home match against grand slam chasing Ireland on March 9. The players will have already undertaken their own personal reviews before the team assembles for a collective session.

“How we debrief this, how we go through it and take the learnings from it is going to be very important,” Borthwick said. “There were mistakes in terms of the systems, mistakes in terms of the players playing together as combinations.

“What’s going to be interesting to me and what I want when we debrief the players, is after that first 20, why we went and played in a manner that was not the way we played the first 20. What changed? What in the thought processes altered to try and do something different, that led to that spike in the error rate?

“And then led to giving Scotland the opportunity to score? And I’ll only be able to understand that once we have talked to the players and listened to them about how it was on the grass.”

Vice captain George Ford insists that the players will have to be prepared to take ownership of their individual mistakes but says there will be no hiding place in the review. “It’s up front, not necessarily screaming and shouting, but it’s up front, honest, whether that’s from Steve, Felix, Wiggy, Kev,” Ford said. “We’ve got a few days before we meet up in York but have got to dig into the reasons why some of the things happened today. To do that you’ve got to be unbelievably honest, you can’t paper the cracks or you’re not going to move forward as a team.

“That comes from the coaches, but the players as well as we’re the guys out there, with the ball in our hands, trying to catch the ball and trying to make good decisions and execute. We’ve got to take ownership of that as well.”

With Ireland to come at Twickenham and then a final round trip to face France in Lyon, England are staring down the barrel of a fourth consecutive two-win Six Nations campaign, which would be their worst run of results in the tournament since the 1970s. The bookmakers have already given Ireland a 21-point handicap, but Itoje insists there is no sense of foreboding.

“It is a serious challenge, but a challenge we’re looking forward to,” Itoje said. “To be the type of team we want to be, we need to beat teams like Ireland, we need to beat teams like the two teams we’ll play next in this tournament.

“So it’s a challenge we’ll wholeheartedly throw all of ourselves at, and it’s a game that we believe we can win. Look, we know today we weren’t good enough, we’re not shying away from that, and that’s going to be part of our review. We’ll look at all elements of that. As a forward pack, we need to step forward and do better.”

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