Steve Borthwick’s first Guinness Six Nations voyage as England head coach was not lacking in drama and talking points.
Thrust in with the task of steadying the ship through choppy waters, Borthwick looked to be on track before a devastating wave from across the English Channel threatened to throw him off course.
As the fog clears, let’s consider all that went down during a dizzying few weeks for England.
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) March 18, 2023
Star performer – Jack Willis
Flanker Jack Willis formed part of a new look England back row and of the three he may be the most pleased with his work across the Championship.
A difficult afternoon against France aside, Willis benefited hugely from what was his first consistent run in the side since making his breakthrough in 2020.
He capped his return to the international arena with a near-perfect back row display and a try against Italy at Twickenham.
He may have failed to play more than 62 minutes in any of his four starts but given his lack of Test minutes, and having to contend with travelling back and forth from Toulouse, he can count this year’s Guinness Six Nations a job well done.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 22, 2023
Breakthrough player – Ollie Chessum
Ollie Chessum played no part in Round 5 after suffering a cruel ankle injury but more than made his mark in his first four Championship starts.
England may have tasted defeat in their opener against Scotland but Chessum delivered an all-action display which Leicester Tigers fans have become accustomed to.
He possesses a maturity that belies his 22 years and his partnership with Maro Itoje could be one that is here to stay.
He has not suffered many significant injuries previously and though he faces a race against time to be fit for the World Cup, England will want to be careful with the gentle giant who is set for a big future.
It is not quite clear what exactly this Guinness Six Nations spells for England, but they are undoubtedly in transition.
A third consecutive Championship yielding two wins from five, while disappointing, has a firmly different feel, with an admittance pre kick-off that this campaign was never going to be England’s finest.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 20, 2023
The defeat by France was a tough watch for those of an English persuasion but may prove to be a result that England look back on as a turning point.
Certainly their performance against Ireland was a cause for optimism, with Borthwick’s side well in the game even after Freddie Steward’s red card.
If they can replicate that performance for grit and determination and weave in a little more ingenuity in attack then there is certainly the bones of a team that can challenge once again.
Any victory in Cardiff is not to be sniffed at.
Prior to their Round 3 trip, England had not won in the Welsh capital since 2017 and never looked overly troubled by Warren Gatland’s side on this occasion.
Full-back Steward stood out, leading his team for carries and metres made and also chipping in with two dominant tackles as England starved their opponents of clear-cut opportunities.
— Guinness Sei Nazioni (@SeiNazioniRugby) February 25, 2023
Steward said after that game that he wants to become the world’s best in his position and while the 22-year-old might not yet be at the level of Player of the Championship nominees Hugo Keenan and Thomas Ramos, time is on his side.
Seemingly the area of England’s game which Borthwick has had an immediate effect on is the set-piece.
England managed the best line-out success rate (92%) of any team, made the most maul metres of any side and scored as many tries from mauls (3) as the other nations combined.
Not too long ago the scrum was also seen as a problem area but not so under Borthwick with England managing the best scrum success rate in the Championship (96%).
With a point to prove they more than held their own until late on when numbers told against Ireland and the return to form of Anthony Watson was also a positive.
For all England’s improvements at the set piece, they have some way to go to match their rivals in open play.
That is the case on both sides of the ball too, with England completing the fewest off loads and line breaks while also registering the lowest tackle completion.
Borthwick trialled four unique midfield combinations during the Guinness Six Nations and may feel he is no closer to knowing his preferred option.
Midway through the Championship, the Owen Farrell-Marcus Smith debate seemed as decisive as ever but the former looks to have seized the upper hand in that contest but who plays outside him is anyone’s guess.
Appointing a permanent successor to Martin Gleeson as attack coach will be high on Borthwick’s priority list.
If England took a few steps forward with their wins over Italy and Wales, then the France defeat certainly knocked them back a few paces.
But their doings in Dublin ensured the campaign finished on a high even if the result was a negative one.
Borthwick has fixed England’s issues at the set piece and given time it seems inevitable that Kevin Sinfield will shore up a porous defence.
Who heads up England’s attack from both a playing and coach perspective remains to be seen – both parties will have a huge say in what this England team goes on to achieve.