Sunday, March 19, 2023
LONDON: England regained a measure of self-respect before failing to deny Ireland a Six Nations Grand Slam but underlying issues still confront Steve Borthwick's men just months out from the September start of the Rugby World Cup.
There had been fears England would suffer a fresh mauling in Dublin on Saturday following last week's humiliating and record home 53-10 defeat by World Cup hosts France at Twickenham.
England, however, were vastly more resilient at Lansdowne Road, an indication they were getting to grips with the methods of defence coach Kevin Sinfield.
They were well in the game at just 10-6 behind when full-back Freddie Steward was sent off on the stroke of half-time for making contact with the head of Ireland counterpart Hugo Keenan.
But a combination of the man disadvantage and the hosts' quality told as Ireland eventually sealed a 29-16 win.
Unfortunately for England, having shown some much-needed cohesion, this was their last competitive match before they open their World Cup campaign against Argentina — who defeated them at Twickenham during last year's Autumn campaign — in Marseille on September 9.
Much can happen before then, not least injuries to key personnel, with England captain Owen Farrell telling ITV: "We've got to go back to our clubs and work hard to become better players so that when we do get back we can be a better team.
"The next time we come together we get a good amount of time together so we can work on building on what we want to build."
The Ireland defeat meant 2003 world champions England ended a third successive Six Nations with only two wins from five games.
It made the decision to end the seven-year England reign of veteran coach Eddie Jones in December and then install Borthwick all the more baffling.
Jones, who guided England to a 2019 World Cup final defeat by South Africa, has a fine record at the showpiece tournament and, thanks to an absurdly lopsided draw, his old side could yet make it to the semi-finals without playing a team ranked higher than seventh in the rankings.
Had former England captain Borthwick, who last season guided Leicester to the Premiership title, succeeded coaching mentor Jones after the World Cup he would have had a clean slate rather than the messy situation he inherited instead.
But coaching appointments, or whether Owen Farrell or Marcus Smith starts at fly-half, cannot disguise more fundamental problems, in particular concerns about the power and pace of England's pack.
Both Ireland and France have also seen their youth systems produce far more top-class players in recent years, with the Irish Under-20s bidding for a Grand Slam of their own on Sunday against an England team hammered 42-7 by their French counterparts last time out.
This season has also seen two Premiership teams Wasps and Worcester expelled from the Premiership after going bust, with clubs in Ireland and France — the world's top-ranked rugby nations — far more closely aligned with the quest for World Cup glory.
It may have been asking too much of English rugby's decision-makers to hold their nerve after England's first-round exit on home soil at the 2015 World Cup, but the Irish have still benefitted from the move by their old rivals to ditch Andy Farrell, now Ireland's head coach and assistant Mike Catt.
Stuart Lancaster, England's boss at the 2015 World Cup, and Graham Rowntree have also become key figures in Irish provinces Leinster and Munster respectively.
"A lot of the foundations [with England] were right," Lancaster told the BBC.
"We won four out of five Six Nations games for four years. When you leave a country, you take with you the experience that you have developed and, indirectly, you also give it to another country."