It is on a wing and a prayer that England will begin their Rugby World Cup. When Eddie Jones picked the youngest side to compete in a World Cup final four years ago in Yokohama, the thought was that the same group would be back again this time around, older, stronger, better, and ready for another title tilt.
The errors since that have left England in this parlous state – where progression from the pool cannot be deemed a certainty – are almost too numerous to catalogue.
Steve Borthwick’s side will begin their tournament without captain Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola, the probable starting number eight, both suspended after high tackles. Jack van Poortvliet and Anthony Watson, two presumed backline starters, are also absent due to injury. In attack they remain toothless; in defence, porous, and the deep strife in which English rugby finds itself hardly suggests a buoyant rugby public ready to get behind their side.
As a reminder, the last 12 months have seen three clubs lost from the Premiership, the community game threaten revolt after a tackle height law change was hurried upon them, and the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union (RFU), Bill Sweeney, accused of being “asleep on the job” by a parliamentary select committee. Sweeney, if you were wondering, has not spoken publicly in 2023: the RFU insist he will speak when there is positive news to speak about, which rather tells its own story.
It was argued in these pages a few weeks ago that England have never been less prepared for a major tournament – and that was before a first ever defeat to Fiji. English sporting fans are used a bit of blind faith around major tournaments but to expect them to believe a side that has won four times in their last 13 fixtures are capable of being anything other than World Cup also-rans is surely optimistic.
Borthwick has cited his own experience of the 2007 World Cup as evidence of how a team can come together under tournament conditions. Then, an England side marmalised by South Africa in their opening game ended up running the Springboks rather closer in the final.
It was a campaign built on player power, with an experienced group drawing on their winning knowledge from four years previously to find a winning gameplan, with Brian Ashton, then coach, suggesting afterwards that it was his attention all along to get his squad thinking for themselves.
What chances of a repeat? The England of 2007 also had a dominant group of forwards, with Andrew Sheridan hitting career-best form at loosehead prop to win scrumtime skirmishes and Jonny Wilkinson kicking the goals with typical precision.
Rugby has evolved since that slightly turgid tournament, though, and England would appear to lack that sort of distinguishing feature this time around. When Borthwick took the role as head coach, he remarked that the side he had seen under Jones in the autumn “weren’t good at anything”. Nine fixtures later, little has changed.
The indications are that a kick pressure game will be favoured. To execute that preferred strategy will require greater accuracy than they have showed over the last six months. While Vunipola is a likely returnee after his ban has been served, there may be logic in using Tom Curry with one of Ben Earl or Jack Willis in the back row, going harder at the breakdown to try and win field position.
Aled Walters, the athletic performance guru that oversaw the Springboks’ win four years ago, was brought in ahead of this campaign to try and make England fitter. There have been few signs of that through the warm-up games but noises inside the camp continue to protest that the side are intent on peaking only for this tournament.
The players increasingly suggest they are being driven by a feeling that they have been written off too soon. The draw, you may have heard, is kind, with nothing in their pool to be genuinely fearful of. This side has not played to potential, really, since the 2019 run to the final, but contains more players who have hit a genuinely world-class level in the past than most of their likely foes.
Now, for example, would be an excellent time for Maro Itoje to rediscover top form, or Owen Farrell, once back available, to truly grasp an international game as he did so many times for Saracens last season.
The old story about England’s male footballers was that their World Cup was often ended by the first truly good team they met, and there is that sort of feel about this rugby side. But tournament rugby can be a strange beast, and this side four years ago showed what they can produce in a one-off semi-final. Whichever two of France, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa and Scotland that survives the Heraclean labours in the top half of the draw will surely carry fatigue into the final fortnight.
Does that give England hope of the unlikeliest of triumphs? After four years of promising there will be jam tomorrow, tomorrow has arrived. “We are in the thick of it and we are doing everything we can to make sure that we are firing on all cylinders,” said Borthwick in his final press conference before the World Cup. “It’s going to be a hell of a spectacle, so enjoy it. We are going out all guns blazing and we are going to give it everything we have got.”
Coach: Steve Borthwick
Captain: Owen Farrell
Key player: Jamie George – The hooker’s depth means they cannot afford to lose the Saracens front rower. George is the best scrummaging hooker in England’s squad and normally accurate with his darts, two areas that will be key to Borthwick’s plan.
Rising star: Freddie Steward – There are questions about Steward’s form, but he’s started every game since his international debut and, though other full backs may pose more threat as counterattackers or distributors, the 22-year-old full back offers valuable aerial command.
Big question: Will England finally again be the sum of their parts after four muddled years since the World Cup?
Forwards: Dan Cole, Ellis Genge, Joe Marler, Bevan Rodd, Kyle Sinckler, Will Stuart; Theo Dan, Jamie George, Jack Walker; Ollie Chessum, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, George Martin; Tom Curry, Ben Earl, Lewis Ludlam, David Ribbans, Billy Vunipola, Jack Willis.
Backs: Danny Care, Alex Mitchell, Ben Youngs; Owen Farrell (captain), George Ford, Marcus Smith; Ollie Lawrence, Joe Marchant, Manu Tuilagi; Henry Arundell, Elliot Daly, Max Malins, Freddie Steward, Jonny May.
Saturday 9 September: England vs Argentina, Pool D (Marseille, 8pm)
Sunday 17 September: England vs Japan, Pool D (Nice, 8pm)
Saturday 23 September: England vs Chile, Pool D (Lille, 4.45pm)
Saturday 7 October: England vs Samoa, Pool D (Lille, 4.45pm)