SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: It's time for England's leaders to stand up

SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: It’s time for England’s leaders to stand up. Rugby World Cup expectations will be very low but Steve Borthwick’s team shouldn’t just write off their chances on the sport’s biggest stage

  • England have suffered disappointing results in their World Cup preparations
  • But now is the time for England’s leaders to stand up and show their qualities
  • England’s players and rookie coaching staff have to make this tournament theirs 

I needed a stronger cup of tea than usual Sunday morning after England’s defeat by Ireland — one which included yet another red card.

Expectations will be very low for England at the World Cup on the back of poor performances in the three warm-up games so far and with Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola both facing bans.

But no England team should ever just write off their chances on rugby’s biggest stage. Look at 2007. England went to that tournament in awful shape and with players nowhere near as good as the current crop. They reached the final against all the odds.

In 2007, they had a monstrous pack. More importantly, they had seasoned players with vast experience such as Lawrence Dallaglio, Jonny Wilkinson and Phil Vickery among others.

It is time this England side’s leaders stepped up. If they do, I can still see them having a successful tournament. With a talented coaching team in their rookie year, these players have to make this tournament theirs.

England have struggled to get going in their World Cup preparations after some tough results

England captain Owen Farrell is likely to miss the start of his sides World Cup campaign

Head coach Steve Borthwick needs to make tough choices ahead of the tournament beginning

It is their last chance. But two red cards in two games from leaders Farrell and Vunipola is not setting the standard required.

England are not at the same level as France, Ireland, New Zealand or South Africa. Right now, they would not win a three-Test series against those countries.

They could win a one-off World Cup knockout game. But on the evidence in Dublin, England won’t do so if they continue with a game plan dominated by box kicks and constantly trying to send Manu Tuilagi over the gain line. The set-piece was the only real positive on Saturday.

England have to play faster and they have to keep the ball. Tournament and knockout rugby is very different to playing in other competitions. It’s not been a good three weeks for Steve Borthwick. But this is not a time for anyone connected to the national side to be sulking.

After their red cards against Wales and Ireland, Farrell and Vunipola are likely to be handed suspensions this week. Farrell is England’s captain but he and Vunipola can be replaced. The key man is now George Ford, with Farrell likely to be absent. Ford is like a coach on the field. 

The Vunipola situation is a little different. This is where Borthwick must show strength in the face of adversity and step up and lead. As an international head coach, you have to have the courage to make big calls.

Vunipola is the only specialist No 8 in the squad and is almost certain to be unavailable for the World Cup opener with Argentina. I don’t think England can face the Pumas with a makeshift No 8. Borthwick has to consider making changes and bringing in Alex Dombrandt or Zach Mercer.

I thought it was right for Borthwick to name his final 33-man World Cup squad early to give the players time to bed in. But the impending suspension to Vunipola changes things.

Billy Vunipola is the only specialist No.8 in England’s Rugby World Cup squad and could miss the start of the tournament after his red card against Ireland on Sunday

Expectations will be low for England when the tournament gets underway next month

Borthwick can still make alterations to his party before the World Cup. Dropping a player or two who he has already told will be going to France would be tough on those individuals. But this is professional sport and there can be no room for sentiment. 

When you’re a head coach, you’re not in a popularity contest. I don’t buy the theory that low expectations can be good for England. Favourites tend to make finals for a reason, because they are the best teams.

But there is no magic blueprint on how to do well at World Cups. In 2007, Brian Ashton’s side were hammered 36-0 by South Africa in their first pool game. 

Weeks later, they were only narrowly beaten by the Springboks in the final. Things can turn around very quickly.

From the lowest of lows, any team can rise from the ashes. England’s class of 2023 can do it too, though for that to happen they need more from their most experienced players.

Great coaches thrive in moments of significant adversity. It is now up to Borthwick and England to do exactly that

Borthwick and his rookie coaching staff have to make this tournament theirs

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