Written off without playing a minute of this Rugby World Cup.
That’s how brutal the critics have been with England and coach Steve Borthwick. He said on Thursday that assessment is premature and he expects a reaction from his players.
It’ll have to be straight away as England faces its most challenging pool game first in France, against Argentina in the Pool D opener in Marseille on Saturday.
“There’s a feeling that they’ve been written off a bit too early,” Borthwick said of an England team in one of its deepest ruts. “People called time on them a bit too early.”
“These players have got a hell of a lot more to go and they can’t wait to get stuck in on Saturday night.”
England’s struggles are almost chronic. They started last year under former coach Eddie Jones. His unceremonious firing and Borthwick’s ascent to the job hasn’t made much difference.
England has lost six out of nine this year, including an embarrassing first defeat by Fiji last month in its last game before the World Cup. There, the English missed a golden opportunity to halt the slide just for a moment and pick up an expected win. Instead, they went free-wheeling into a crisis with a shocker of a loss.
The streak has been exacerbated by disciplinary problems, leaving England without flyhalf and captain Owen Farrell and ball-carrying No. 8 Billy Vunipola for the start of the Rugby World Cup because of suspensions stemming from red cards for similar high tackles. Ill-timed injuries have depleted Borthwick’s options and forced him into late callups and plan changes.
When it rains, it pours.
“There’s definitely a frustration. We feel it as much as anybody. We’re in the thick of it," stand-in captain Courtney Lawes said. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure that come this weekend we are firing on all cylinders.
“This will be my shot at winning a World Cup. I’m going to give it absolutely everything I’ve got and I’m 100% sure the boys are going to follow me in.”
Maybe it’s a good time to get away, although England clearly isn’t in the sunny south of France for a vacation.
In an attempt to change the fortunes, Borthwick threw up two surprise selections for the Argentina game when he fast-tracked scrumhalf Alex Mitchell and wing Jonny May into the starting team despite them not even making his initial tournament squad and being called in because of injuries.
Elsewhere, George Ford will continue to cover for Farrell at flyhalf and form a new partnership with Mitchell, and Ben Earl starts for Vunipola at No. 8. The inconsistency in performance is matched by forced personnel changes.
The inspiration will have to come from somewhere else.
England did have at least one glimmer of good news, with flanker Tom Curry fit again and set to play his first game since May. He was a pivotal figure in England’s run to the Rugby World Cup final four years ago and might at least be one reminder of better times.
Borthwick also hoped the team still has the backing of the country, even if the rugby analysts have lost faith.
“You sense that people (of) this country feel an attachment to this team, they feel a passion for this team,” he said.
Argentina hasn’t set the rugby world alight itself this year, although it’s not in the kind of slump England is.
The Pumas won just once in the Rugby Championship and let chances slip through their paws, most notably when they had world champion South Africa on the rack in Johannesburg and couldn’t finish it.
What coach Michael Cheika does have for Marseille that England doesn’t is everyone ready to go, meaning Argentina is at full strength and Cheika’s challenge was the polar opposite to Borthwick’s.
“It was difficult to choose the starting team because they are all available,” Cheika said.
England: Freddie Steward, Jonny May, Joe Marchant, Manu Tuilagi, Elliot Daly, George Ford, Alex Mitchell; Ben Earl, Tom Curry, Courtney Lawes (captain), Ollie Chessum, Maro Itoje, Dan Cole, Jamie George, Ellis Genge. Reserves: Theo Dan, Joe Marler, Will Stuart, George Martin, Lewis Ludlam, Danny Care, Marcus Smith, Ollie Lawrence.
Argentina: Juan Cruz Mallia, Emiliano Boffelli, Lucio Cinti, Santiago Chocobares, Mateo Carreras, Santiago Carreras, Gonzalo Bertranou; Juan Martin Gonzalez, Marcos Kremer, Pablo Matera, Tomas Lavanini, Matias Alemanno, Francisco Gómez Kodela, Julian Montoya (captain), Thomas Gallo. Reserves: Agustín Creevy, Joel Sclavi, Eduardo Bello, Guido Petti Pagadizabal, Pedro Rubiolo, Rodrigo Bruni, Lautaro Bazan Velez, Matías Moroni.
AP Rugby World Cup: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby