England’s rugby fraternity has gone into full blown panic mode following the dismal weekend loss to Ireland and the judiciary clouds hanging over two of their star players ahead of the World Cup.
Steve Borthwick’s team conceded five tries and had Billy Vunipola sent off in a 29-10 loss that has seen many in the game throw up the white flag ahead of the tournament in France next month.
Borthwick replaced Eddie Jones at the helm but has failed to turn around the team’s fortunes.
Former England flyhalf Danny Cipriani said English rugby was “digging its own grave” in a social media post where he added the national set up was being “led by people who do not understand the art of the game”.
Borthwick has won three of eight games since replacing Jones.
“It doesn’t mean Borthwick isn’t right for the job,” Cipriani wrote. “He took over a very wooden system left by Eddie [Jones], which is a very tough job to get the players to unlearn what was ingrained in them.”
The week ahead will see judiciary decisions on Vunipola and Owen Farrell, who faces the World Rugby appeal to his clearance for a red card.
Vunipola was the only No.8 named in Borthwick’s Cup squad – although changes can be made up to August 30 – while Farrell is the team’s captain.
Regardless of those two decisions, there is an all-pervading sense of gloom.
Will Kelleher, writing in the Times, was scathing of the team’s performance against Ireland and highlighted a telling stat.
“For many who follow or support England, the overriding emotion on Saturday night after the 29-10 defeat by Ireland was sadness. How can it be that this set of clearly talented players consistently deliver such desperate performances?” wrote Kelleher.
“You can talk sagely about the lack of time Steve Borthwick has had as head coach, the mess Eddie Jones left behind, the fact that the attack often clicks later than the rest of the game plan, or that England were playing the best team in the world, but at some point you have to ask — even with all those caveats — is this really the best they can come up with?
“England were awful again in Ireland. They barely created a chance. Their backs have not scored since March. In match minutes that is seven minutes short of six hours ago. Six hours. In that time you can watch Oppenheimer twice.”
England, he concluded, “look totally and utterly shot, and the World Cup has not even started. It is incredible to think that they are genuinely worse now than when Eddie Jones was sacked in December 2022.
“On recent evidence, a win against Argentina on September 9 in the opening pool match of the World Cup would be a surprise. It may sound ludicrous, but it is genuinely feasible that they also lose to one of Japan, Samoa or Chile. They are that bad.
“The fury and dejection England are invoking across their country is extraordinary.”
Chris Foy, writing in the Daily Mail, suggested there was an increasing number of England fans regretting the RFU’s decision to sack Jones last year.
“The crisis is now so severe that a ‘bring back Eddie Jones’ bandwagon started thundering along on Saturday night, as England’s disgruntled supporters lamented another calamitous occasion,” wrote Foy.
“There is a growing, unavoidable sense that the national team are going backwards. In the penultimate game of the deteriorating Jones era, last November, England — for all their faults — fought back from 25-6 down with three late tries to draw with the All Blacks at Twickenham. It is hard to imagine them managing anything of the sort now.
“What is easier to imagine is Jones and his Australia team will be the ones who bring England’s World Cup campaign to a shuddering halt in a quarter-final in Marseille — if it even goes on that long.”
Foy noticed nascent signs of rebellion within the England playing group.
“”The best teams have varied repertoires, whereas England currently don’t have a repertoire at all. A strong hunch is that not all the members of the national squad are buying into how they are being asked to play. Body language is betraying possible doubts behind the scenes,” he wrote.
“It is hard to recall England going into a World Cup with so little hope. Even in 2007, they were in a state, but launched their warm-up phase with nine tries, including one by Borthwick, in a 62-5 thumping of Wales at Twickenham.
“This could all be a plot to lull rivals into writing them off, before a sudden transformation in France. But let’s be honest, that seems highly unlikely.”
Gavin Mairs, writing in the UK Telegraph, contrasted the fortunes of a flying Ireland and a grounded England.
“Four years on and it feels like the entire World Cup cycle has been a waste for England, while Ireland under Andy Farrell have developed into a fine side, brimming with cohesion, variety of attacking detail and a depth not seen before going into a World Cup,” Mairs wrote.
“Questions must be asked about decisions taken by the Rugby Football Union during this period because England should be so much better than this. It is hard not to feel for Borthwick, who has had so little time to make his mark and is now having to deal with real-time crises when he desperately needs to focus on the basics and fast-track an attacking strategy.
“Yet England supporters are right to ask why the last four years have not been used to improve a side that reached the World Cup final in Japan.”
Robert Kitson, writing in the Guardian, sugested England fans won’t stomach much more.
“Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is often regarded as the definition of insanity. A monochrome, one-paced England team, who have now lost four of their past five games, are certainly not learning swiftly from their mistakes and the odds on Steve Borthwick’s side underperforming at the upcoming Rugby World Cup continue to shorten,” he wrote.
“If they keep playing in the same plodding fashion they did at the Aviva Stadium, there is also no guarantee people will continue to want to watch them. England have had their barren periods in the professional era but rarely have they tested their supporters’ faith so relentlessly. Limited, formulaic, depressing – and that is just the post-match press conferences. Out on the pitch even their smartest players are now doing a good impression of brainwashed zombies.”
World Cup winning coach Clive Woodward acknowledged the situation looked dire for this year’s cohort, but provided a rallying cry.
“They could win a one-off World Cup knockout game. But on the evidence in Dublin, England won’t do so if they continue with a game plan dominated by box kicks and constantly trying to send Manu Tuilagi over the gain line. The set-piece was the only real positive on Saturday,” he wrote in the Daily Mail.
“England have to play faster and they have to keep the ball. Tournament and knockout rugby is very different to playing in other competitions. It’s not been a good three weeks for Steve Borthwick. But this is not a time for anyone connected to the national side to be sulking.”