Only the god send of an easy World Cup pool is sparing English rugby fans and media from total meltdown after a first-ever loss to Fiji on Sunday (AEST).
But the fact that World Rugby set the World Cup pools two years out from the competition means England should advance from their group alongside Argentina – who they face first up – and into a likely quarterfinal against Wales, Australia, or the flying Fijians.
Daniel Schofield, the UK Telegraph, said England “now belong in the third tier of nations.”
“In normal circumstances, you would label this a giantkilling, only that England long ago assumed the role of pygmies frightened of their own shadow,” Schofield seethed.
“England, yet again, were rancid. To borrow an old cricket maxim, there’s only three things wrong with this England team: they can’t catch, they can’t tackle and they can’t kick.
“Their defence, especially, is atrocious. You would say it would be madness for England to rip up their gameplan two weeks out from a World Cup. Right now it appears madness to stick with it.”
Clive Woodward, England’s World Cup winning coach in 2003, believes it is not yet time to panic. The man who relentlessly hammered Eddie Jones for every mis step with England is being surprisingly supportive of Borthwick.
“England were outplayed by Fiji, but now is not the time to panic,” wrote Woodward.
“That’s life, these things happen and only one game matters — the opening World Cup pool match against Argentina.
“You could not have planned these four warm-up games to go worse than they have, it’s the poorest build-up England have ever had going into a World Cup.
“But now is the time to draw a line in the sand. If England beat Argentina in Marseille a week on Saturday then the whole thing changes. But if they lose to them, they are really in a hole.
“If England don’t get out of their pool then the sport of rugby in this country will have taken a backward step.”
He added: “I feel for Borthwick in a way. It’s a tough job and he’s having to learn it fast, and that’s not easy.
“He’s got to stay calm. At 43, he’s still a young coach and he needs people at Twickenham to get round him. They should be saying, ‘Don’t panic. Beat Argentina and we are away.’”
Former England international, Mike Brown, also in the Daily Mail seemed to disagree with Woodward on Borthwick.
“Looking at this England team, it strikes me that the players are not fully buying into the game plan that the coaches are giving them,” Brown wrote.
“If they do buy into it then they need to find a way to show that. They look miserable on the pitch. It looks like their confidence and belief is shot.
“There’s not long so they need to stand up and say something to Steve Borthwick if they feel like things aren’t right.
“The players need to take control. They’ve got big enough characters in there like Courtney Lawes and Ellis Genge. If they don’t, they will live to regret it.
“I’m not sure the game plan fits the players, so is Borthwick the right man? We will find out at the World Cup. I wrote a while back that Scott Robertson should have got the England job and I stand by that.
“I don’t know if the RFU rushed into the appointment. They say they’ve been working on a transition process for a couple of years but they’ve gone for the last English guy who won something.”
Stephen Jones, writing in The Times, suggested it was hard to see England improving in a hurry – not that they’d require it to get to the semis.
“You would love to list power areas in this England team, go-to tactics they could adopt, or inspirational individuals they may bring in. But after this miserable sequence, there is just no optimism on the horizon in these matters,” Jones wrote.
“But England would not need a massive improvement — assuming they have such a thing in them — to get through to the semi-finals and, frankly, that would be the most telling comment on the organisation of World Rugby in the draw that it is possible to make.”
But, he added: “If they cannot improve, then something awful will happen to them in France, something which will, at least in the present era, place their status as one of the world’s greatest rugby nations in serious doubt.
“Frankly, it is unbelievable how far they have retreated since the previous World Cup, and there’s been no real revival in the wake of the wrecker, Eddie Jones. We are still waiting for the revival, and at the moment, it will have to take place behind closed doors.”
Gerard Meagher, in the Guardian, complained: “We are running out of synonyms for crisis. Turmoil, disaster, catastrophe, disarray, calamity … put them all together and they barely do justice to England’s predicament.
“They had never failed to beat Fiji by less than double figures before this but as the clock ticked down in the final few minutes the Pacific Islanders could bask in the glory of their history-making feats. The blue Fijian flags fluttered in a sun-soaked corner of Twickenham, their supporters dancing with delight. England’s white flags had long since been waved.
“Fijian pitch invaders were embraced by their teammates, England supporters – those who turned up – slinked out with their side at a new ebb. It is tempting to herald this as England’s most embarrassing defeat but that does scant justice to Fiji who have been knocking on the door of rugby union’s established elite and now smashed the door down.
“The upshot is that not since the Normandy landings has a group of Englishmen crossed the Channel with such dread. England’s World Cup campaign is descending into farce. They are playing like a side with the weight of the world on their shoulders and unless drastic action is taken in the next fortnight, they are staring down the barrel of a second-ever pool stage exit, eight years after their first.
“Here, they missed 27 tackles and defensively they were desperate. Steve Borthwick keeps insisting his players are getting tighter and tighter together but maybe it is time for sharing a few home truths.”
Robert Kitson, also in the Guardian, hailed the winners.
“The list of famous English sporting defeats has a new entry. Congratulations to the great rugby nation of Fiji for rewriting Pacific Island oval ball history but never before has English rugby taken such a massive reputational dive. To say Steve Borthwick’s team have a few problems to solve before the Rugby World Cup kicks off next month is the understatement of the decade,” Kitson wrote.
“Short of winning Olympic Sevens gold for the first time in Rio in 2016 it is difficult to imagine a result that will generate more pride and joy in the streets of Suva and Lautoka and every rugby-mad village in between. Equally, the frustrated gnashing of teeth in Middle England is now deafening. Twenty-five thousand empty seats at Twickenham is no accident and neither was this outcome.
“While Fiji are a decent side who grew in confidence and fully merited their victory, England have been a major accident waiting to happen for weeks. They had been hoping their final warm-up game before heading to France would supply a measure of relief but, instead, a 72nd-minute try from the replacement scrum-half, Simione Kuruvoli, condemned the hosts to a fifth defeat in their past six Tests.
“It was also England’s sixth loss in nine games under Borthwick and once again they looked anything but serious World Cup contenders. The pressure on the head coach shows little sign of easing and the past month has yielded precious few positives. Already without their suspended captain, Owen Farrell, and No 8, Billy Vunipola, as well as a number of other injury absentees, the omens for the opening World Cup pool game against Argentina in Marseille on 9 September grow ever less promising.”
World Cup winning player Will Greenwood, writing in the Telegraph, was gloomy.
“I don’t know how you define a bad England team, but losing to Fiji at home already makes you one of the worst, because England have never done that before. From a world-ranking perspective, this is nearly as bad as it has ever been. In a big game against any of the current top eight teams in the world right now, England’s chance of winning is as low as it has ever been,” wrote Greenwood.
“I was impressed with England in the first 20 minutes, but when you then don’t put a team away, like all things in life, the momentum suddenly swings, and it’s really hard to grasp it back. That’s what we saw on Saturday. Fiji looked more dynamic, athletic, ambitious, skilful. It almost felt that even if England scored, Fiji would go up the other end and take them apart. It’s one of the excellent Fiji teams.”