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England shrugged off data straitjacket to debut Borthball 2.0

Alex Mitchell, Marcus Smith and Tommy Freeman celebrate
England played with ambition and abandon - Getty Images/Dan Mullan

The reverberations of Marcus Smith’s drop-goal that seemed to shake the very foundations of Twickenham continue to be felt long after the most seismic English home victory here since the 38-21 win over New Zealand in 2012.

Not only have England supporters rediscovered a team that they can genuinely love again, after more than four years of empty rhetoric and a few fleeting acts of resilience, but this represented the true start of the Borthwick 2.0 era where art is allied to science. England’s other landmark performance under Borthwick came in the World Cup semi-final defeat to South Africa. The result – a one-point margin of victory – and the opposition – whom Borthwick labelled the “best in the world” – may have been similar but this was the antithesis of how they played in the teeming rain at the Stade de France.

They made double the number of passes and nearly half the kicks, but moreover played with ambition and abandon that was completely absent in France. Indeed, England came out on the wrong side of the metrics they put most store in during the World Cup. The mantra of who kicks the most wins was flipped on its head (England kicked 23 times for 606 metres versus Ireland’s 28 for 948 metres). England also lost the penalty count 11-8 and turnover battle 13-9.

Damn the database. Screw the statistics. England rediscovered the forgotten virtues of freedom and flair, playing what was in front of them rather than to a prescribed formula. Like a fledgling bird learning to fly, England’s attack had flapped its wings in the first couple of rounds before suffering a crash landing in Murrayfield which shook their confidence. Here it finally took flight and what a glorious sight it was to see the hitherto-wasted talents of Ollie Lawrence playing like he does for Bath, George Furbank gliding here, there and everywhere and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso causing carnage wherever he went. Potential was finally being unleashed rather than stifled.

None of that is to say that England were playing without a plan. They most certainly were. On Thursday, Borthwick outlined a three-point checklist of how to beat Ireland. “So three areas 1) disrupt their kicking game, 2) make sure your ball carrying and breakdown is right so you can attack, 3) you’ve got to stop their attack with your defence.” In all three areas, Borthwick’s masterplan came to fruition.

Point one, England’s opening two tries came from putting the Irish kickers under pressure. First when Ben Earl came haring out of the line to force James Lowe to skew his kick to Furbank who arced in field to create an overlap that Lawrence exploited (watch video below).

Then in the second half, it was a combination of Maro Itoje’s pressure and some excellent spatial awareness by George Ford to keep Jamison Gibson-Park’s clearance in play. By the time England swung play right and then left, another mismatch had been created for Furbank to score. Just as importantly, Ireland twice failed to find touch in the final five minutes when every second proved crucial.

Tick.

Point two. England lost the jackalling battle but conclusively won the breakdown war. Swapping Ethan Roots for Ollie Chessum in the back row was a risk against a team that Borthwick stated can challenge you at every breakdown. Yet while England were turned over at four rucks to Ireland’s one, their clearout and ball presentation was excellent throughout, generating 61 per cent of their ruck ball in under three seconds.

Conversely, Ireland were completely knocked out of their slick, sleek style by England’s ferocity at the breakdown. “I thought they were good and clinical at messing up our breakdown,” Peter O’Mahony, the Ireland captain, said. “We found it hard to get consistency in our phase play. They came hard at the breakdown. We spoke about it beforehand but they were good and disrupted us. They were clinical the way they did it. It was a savage battle out there.”

Tick.

Point three, anyone who has just watched the highlights of every England game would assume that their defence is opened as easily as a tin of sardines. When teams manufacture an opening they invariably score like Scotland did in their 30-21 victory at Murrayfield. Outside centre Henry Slade frequently appears as the sacrificial lamb of this system, being caught in no-man’s land for Lowe’s first try (watch video below).

That is the high-risk part of defence coach Felix Jones’ system. The reward is that they limited Ireland to just two clean breaks. As statistician Russ Petty points out, in the previous three rounds Andy Farrell’s team manufactured 30. After an immaculate introduction to life post Johnny Sexton, fly-half Jack Crowley suddenly looked spooked by England’s line speed. “We didn’t have many times to really get our shape going,” Gibson-Park said. “I think everyone is well aware that Felix has come from South Africa and he’s implementing that defensive system, so it’s nothing that we weren’t ready for.”

Tick.

Despite ranking as their signature result since the 2019 semi-final defeat of New Zealand, England were far from perfect against Ireland. Their red-zone efficiency remains a big work in progress with 1.5 points per 22 visit. The behemoths of France in Lyon will pose a completely different challenge.

But there is no doubt that a new page has been turned under Borthwick here. So many of England’s best performances since that 2019 All Blacks game have relied upon bucket loads of resilience – like the 27-26 victory over South Africa in 2021 or last year’s 27-10 World Cup defeat of Argentina. England certainly needed grit against Ireland having fallen behind 17-8 early in the second half and then again with seven minutes to go.

But this was about more than guts. It was about glory. And that’s why Twickenham shook.

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