On Saturday night, a doctored image of Freddie Steward was doing the rounds on social media, showing the England full-back leaping 10ft into the Twickenham night air to defuse yet another Welsh aerial bomb.
It would have caused more than a few people to do a double take because it elaborated upon a kernel of truth, Steward’s excellence under the high ball. So it is with England, who have now won eight of their last nine matches, their sole defeat being the 16-15 loss to the world champion Springboks.
— Jonathan Bilaso (@ItsBilaso) February 11, 2024
If that record feels manipulated then closer examination of that sequence shows no opponent listed in the top six of World Rugby’s rankings. The last five of those victories have been by margins of one, six, three, three and now two points. Whatever the merits or otherwise of those performances, the truth is that England are consistently closing out matches that not long ago they would have let slip. Against Wales, they only led from the 72nd minute having been 14-5 down to complete their biggest half-time comeback at Twickenham.
“That’s the growth of this team; we are finding a way to overcome challenges,” Maro Itoje, the second row, said. “Perhaps a couple of years ago, we would have spiralled, but we had an honest look at ourselves at half-time, Steve gave us clear messages and we managed to slowly but surely turn it around.
“Perhaps in the past, when we’ve been down, we’ve tried to chase the game a bit too much. But what we are trying to do now is trust in our systems, trust in our players and trust in our plan. There have been some well-documented games when we didn’t start well and then continued to spiral. That is what we are trying to change.”
A perfect snapshot of that belief in their principles came when they were 7-0 down with two men in the sin-bin as Itoje screamed out of the defensive line to smash Ioan Lloyd deep behind the gainline inside the Wales 22. Ben Earl scored from the subsequent scrum. “Again it links to what we just spoke about in terms of staying in the fight,” Itoje said. “We were 13-15 in terms of the body count so we were down but we were in a good position on the field and we wanted to keep pressure on them.”
England were particularly impressive in the final 20 minutes or what head coach Steve Borthwick refers to as ‘Q4’. In his first Six Nations in charge last year, England lost Q4 in four of their five matches, most painfully against Scotland at Twickenham that led to Borthwick making pointed observations about the fitness of his players.
This was a trend that long predated Borthwick’s arrival that revealed not just a physical but mental frailty when the game was on the line. “If you look at all the situations the last quarter in the Six Nations last year was a weak quarter for us,” Borthwick said. “We had scores that went... we let scores go there. I think we addressed that as a team [and became] fresher as we were doing a heavy training load then and we [also] addressed it tactically.
“The thing that pleases me most is the characters developed in this group and the players have bought through that in difficult circumstances that believe they’re gonna find a way and in difficult circumstances, they keep fighting. They stay in the fight.”
Borthwick was right in stating that England played a “very smart” second half, keeping Wales at arm’s length by preventing them entering their 22 in the final quarter. Steward’s high ball ability was key in this period (watch video below) but so too their half-backs’ precision kicking game, highlighted by George Ford’s outstanding 50-22.
— ITV Rugby (@ITVRugby) February 10, 2024
According to Opta, their gainline success increased from 37 to 54 per cent after half-time which coincided with a quickening of their ruck speed. Most impressively, having lost the first half penalty count 6-0, they only conceded one penalty after half-time to match Itoje’s pre-match target. “Steve pened it up to the group and I put myself forward to say the number,” Itoje said. “Last week, eight was our target so I said, “Let’s try to be one better than last week, with seven”. Typically, the coach sets what he wants – the expectation – but he opened it up to the group and I felt compelled to say an answer.”
Even coming out of the World Cup with a third-place finish which has extended into back-to-back Six Nations wins, it still feels like we do not know quite how strong this current England actually is. Like the Steward image, their record feels like it has been through Photoshop. A trip to Murrayfield to face Scotland followed by a home Test against Ireland will teach us volumes, but, whatever the results, Itoje promised England will be no one’s pushovers.
“The best England teams of the past however many decades have always stayed in the fight,” Itoje said. “We want to position ourselves as one of those teams. That’s a non-negotiable for us, regardless of the scoreline, regardless of whether we are winning or losing, we want to stay in the fight.”