England have never been less prepared as they face final Rugby World Cup warm-up

England’s Rugby World Cup warm-up campaign has been a disaster  (Getty)
England’s Rugby World Cup warm-up campaign has been a disaster (Getty)

Perhaps England fans are starting to vote with their feet. There are mitigating circumstances as to why Twickenham may not be particularly close to full for England’s final World Cup warm-up match against Fiji – train strikes, the continuing cost of living crisis and rather more appetising Friday night fare among them – but certainly the Rugby Football Union (RFU) would have preferred a few more to RSVP to England’s leaving do.

A celebratory send-off this will surely not be. Regardless of the result this weekend, England will head to their World Cup training base in Le Touquet next Thursday never worse prepared for a tournament. Even the most ardent of supporters and most optimistic of analysts are reaching for glimmers out of the darkness within which Steve Borthwick’s side seem to be consumed. If these four warm-up matches were meant to leave enough runway to build momentum ahead of the tournament, then England have, true to this squandered four-year cycle, careered most definitely off course.

Where to even begin? How about with their attack, averaging not even a try a game over their last five fixtures and heroically inefficient inside the opposition’s 22?

Or what of the defence, shipping more than 25 points per game. England’s captain, Owen Farrell and, only specialist No 8, Billy Vunipola are serving suspensions, ill-conceived, ill-timed and illegal tackles ruling two of their most senior players ruled out of the World Cup opener against Argentina.

And, just when you think things can’t get any worse for a hapless lot, one likely starting wing, Anthony Watson, is out of the World Cup with a calf injury; the other, Elliot Daly, is battling a knee issue. Jack van Poortvliet, Borthwick’s scrum half of choice, has also been lost permanently. Tom Curry won’t have played a minute of competitive rugby since May before facing England’s toughest Pool D foes in Marseille on 9 September.

Billy Vunipola’s suspension is one of a litany of issues that England face (Getty Images)
Billy Vunipola’s suspension is one of a litany of issues that England face (Getty Images)

Spare a thought, then, for the England coach, a methodical mind whose central processing unit must be whirring like never before. Already tossed something of a hospital pass when the RFU decided it could indulge Eddie Jones no longer last December, there has been an element of Murphy’s Law to these last few weeks, with any optimism of the quick progress his side may be able to make when afforded time together dissipating.

The performance in Ireland might have been the most dispiriting yet for the Borthwick given how much more of their attacking hand his side appeared to be trying to show. England threw plenty at the best side in the world but too often stumbled over themselves, with another exhibition in error and slow ruck ball. And, while forging ahead with a preferred kick-pressure strategy made some degree of sense given the lack of time there was for more ambitious rugby architecture, the inaccuracy of efforts both with the boot and on the chase in Dublin may necessitate a reversion to plan B.

Is there one to be found? Borthwick doesn’t immediately strike as an out-of-the-box thinker but desperate times – and these, clearly, are desperate times – may call for unorthodox measures. Take, for example, the pairing of Manu Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence in midfield, a combination that carries the exceptional physical potential that might counteract a lack of forward might only exacerbated by Vunipola’s suspension – though there is a fear that this weekend’s backline may rival Evri in terms of unreliability of distribution.

Steve Borthwick may need to employ some out-of-the-box thinking to salvage anything from England’s World Cup campaign (PA)
Steve Borthwick may need to employ some out-of-the-box thinking to salvage anything from England’s World Cup campaign (PA)

In the back row, Curry’s continuing absence is a shame, though Jack Willis and Ben Earl should still offer plenty around the park. Another way of combatting England’s power deficit might be to go hard on the floor at the breakdown – England, obviously, won’t be top World Cup predators, but Borthwick does have a useful array of scavengers at his disposal. Old warhorse Courtney Lawes wins cap number 100 on the blindside and completes the trio at the base of the scrum.

This, it is worth remembering, is most definitely it for England, one last chance to try and find some optimism heading into the tournament. In Borthwick’s best-laid plans, he might well have liked to cotton wool a few this weekend, but his side cannot afford to ebb even lower.

Besides, there are hardly the available bodies for much rotation and there is plenty of reason to be fearful of their Fijian visitors. The Pacific Islanders may never have beaten England but even infrequent watchers will be aware of the threat they can offer, even in the absence of a couple of their more gifted globetrotters.

Semi Radradra, Viliame Mata and co remain talents from another realm, and, given the carnage in England camp, it feels an inopportune time to take on a side so often the kings of chaos. Their blend of free-thinking, free-moving and physical edge will test England’s tackle technique and robustness, but Fiji are developing, too: the injection of the Fijian Drua into Super Rugby Pacific seems to have provided Simon Rawailui’s side with a degree of cohesion they sometimes lack. Another fretful August afternoon may beckon for Borthwick.