England do not have long to patch up their wounds following Saturday’s record defeat to France.
Steve Borthwick’s team were on the wrong end of a 53-10 loss at Twickenham, their worst-ever home defeat and the third biggest in their history.
However, before they can truly begin to make sense of what went wrong, England need to complete their 2023 Guinness Six Nations campaign in Dublin – where Ireland are chasing the Grand Slam.
Winning in Dublin is a huge ask for a team whose confidence would have been knocked in Round 4, but all is not lost. When you have players as good as England do, anything can happen.
The pressure is also off, with Ireland the heavy favourites to secure their first title for five years, and so England can travel with an underdog mentality.
Steve Borthwick and his coaching team will have pored over the tape from Saturday and will know some of the problems cannot be sorted overnight – but some obvious ones can, to help England contend for a famous away win.
This one is not new, England have been inconsistent at the breakdown for some time.
However, these issues culminated at Twickenham on the weekend, with France bullying England off the ball time and time again – their back-row trio of François Cros, Charles Ollivon and Grégory Alldritt all outstanding. Scotland also found joy in Round 1, and it played a key part in their Calcutta Cup success.
Out of possession, England’s back row did not win a turnover at the breakdown all afternoon, with their speed to the ruck a particular concern. Time and again, France swarmed the ball before an England player could begin to clear, while in possession England’s starting XV conceded 16 turnovers. The signs were ominous from the start, with Gaël Fickou pouncing on a loose ball coming out of England’s very first ruck.
With Ireland boasting the World Player of the Year in Josh van der Flier in their back row, it won’t get any easier and England will no doubt spend much of this week working on their breakdown speed. To succeed in Dublin, they will have to hit the ruck much harder and much faster and not allow their energy levels to dip. With a week on the training ground, this appears fixable.
Lewis Ludlam and Alex Dombrandt were excellent against Wales in Round 3, while Jack Willis has been bright this year, so Borthwick has reason to optimistic Saturday was just a blip. He could also add ballast to their pack and opt to push Maro Itoje or Ollie Chessum back to blindside flanker.
Either way, expect a ferocious start from an English pack determined not to be outmuscled again.
Ollie Lawrence has had an encouraging Championship but he went off with a hamstring injury against France and has been ruled out of the trip to Dublin, leaving a vacancy for a hard-running bulldozing centre. Step forward Manu Tuilagi.
Borthwick knows he will need a power runner to get across Ireland’s gainline, and motivated and fit Manu might just be the ticket. With few other experienced options available, there is great value in being able to call upon a tried-and-tested player who will not be fazed by the occasion.
If history is also an indicator, then it is hard to forget Tuilagi had one of his best games at the Aviva Stadium four years ago, as he relentlessly punched holes in Ireland’s defence and inspired England to a famous 32-20 victory.
When at his best, he remains one of the most physical centres around and is one of a select few who can take on Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw and potentially come out on top.
However, the great unknown is whether he is anywhere near his best. Tuilagi was overlooked for the first two games of the Championship and was suspended for matches against Wales and France. He was in camp last week, used to help England prepare for dealing with the power of Jonathan Danty, although the real thing still caused England a lot of problems.
Still, with Lawrence out and Tuilagi needing to prove a point, unleashing him in Dublin could be just what England need.
Silly errors get punished on the international stage, and England learnt that the hard way against France.
If there is one solace, it is that they are unlikely to be a sloppy again. Their starting side missed 26 tackles, lost 16 turnovers and conceded 11 penalties.
England actually saw a lot of the ball and were solid at the set-piece, but those simple errors saw them record just one point per visit to the opposition 22, compared to France’s 4.2.
Despite the scoreline, England spent more time in France’s 22 than Les Bleus did in theirs, though that is mitigated by the fact six of France’s seven tries saw them go into the 22 and score without going through a ruck.
With the ball, England were incredibly careless, with overhit kicks and simple knock-ons littering their performance.
While the conditions did not make handling easy, Anthony Watson and Marcus Smith both dropped balls under no pressure to hand France field position, while an Alex Dombrandt fumble late in the first half gave the visitors the platform for Charles Ollivon’s try that all but sealed England’s fate.
Rugby is ultimately a simple game and executing the basics goes a long way to winning. Cut out the silly errors, and the game could be much tighter than many expect.