NIK SIMON: Borthwick tries to put on a brave face as his plans go awry

Steve Borthwick tries to put on a brave face as his best-laid plans go awry… but nothing can mask England’s calamitous build-up to the World Cup

  • England’s preparations for the World Cup continue to suffer several heavy blows
  • Eight of their original 33-man squad are unavailable for Saturday’s game vs Fiji 
  • Steve Borthwick is putting on a brave face as he tries to overcome the adversity 

There was a brief moment at the start of Steve Borthwick’s press conference when it felt like England’s World Cup preparations were not burning around him.

He took his usual seat by the fireplace in the Stuart Room, and before the questions began, complimented a journalist on their crisp, white trainers. ‘Now they are new trainers!’ he said, breaking out of his game face into a huge grin. ‘Very athletic trainers! Does this mean you’re going to lead the daily training in France?’

The exchange moved on to the media’s plans to play touch rugby on the beach in Le Touquet, where England will be based from next week. ‘We’ll put a team together!’ added Borthwick. ‘Richard Wigglesworth, Kevin Sinfield… I’ve got some talent. We’re going to have to talk about that!’

At a time when the scrutiny on England is more intense than ever, perhaps it was an attempt to show that he is taking it all in his stride. A day for putting on a brave face, as Anthony Watson joined the list of absentees in England’s calamitous World Cup preparations. The injuries and suspensions keep coming. Eight of the original 33-man squad are unavailable for Saturday’s final warm-up game against Fiji.

Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell are banned. Jack van Poortvliet and Watson have withdrawn for good, while Elliot Daly, Henry Arundell, Tom Curry and George Martin are short-term absentees.

Steve Borthwick is trying to put on a brave face amid England’s calamitous World Cup build-up

The news Anthony Watson will miss the tournament with injury is another big blow to England

Forget Plan B. We are now approaching the realms of Plan F, G and H. Borthwick deals in facts rather than opinions, but privately he may well be banging his head against his bedroom wall.

‘I have no doubt there are going to be more injuries, for every team,’ said Borthwick. ‘We are going through our time now of having bangs and bruises, we are going through our time now of having a couple of disciplinary processes.

‘Every team is going to go through it, and if I could choose my time to go through it, it would probably be now rather than when we’re out in France. I take a lot of notes and have a lot of notebooks capturing all the lessons of previous World Cup experiences.

‘No situation is ever identical but past experience allows you to be able to adapt quickly. Inevitably the plan has to change but the planning process is essential.’

The clock is ticking. England’s tactics are being picked apart and there are calls to break out of the dull, kick-heavy game plan. The fact that ticket sales for Saturday’s match have plummeted well below average is an indication that fans are voting with their feet.

Borthwick has put his faith in Ben Earl to fill the heavyweight void left by Vunipola at No 8. Earl offers 61lb less of carrying power than his team-mate, leaving most of the tackle-busting duties to Manu Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence in the centres.

‘In terms of adapting our game, there are not too many other players like Billy Vunipola,’ admitted Borthwick. ‘There’s a need to be able to play in a different way without him. We also have Lewis Ludlam, who moved from six to No 8 during games in the Six Nations. We also have Tom Curry, who we have not yet seen in these games after rolling his ankle. He’s very close to being ready.’

On a day of more bad news, the landmark moment of Courtney Lawes captaining the side on his 100th cap almost got lost. England need their fearless, rib-crunching leader more than ever. Theo Dan’s first start at hooker barely got a mention.

In the back line, Jonny May has been thrown straight back into the starting XV. The winger has not played a Test this year and was not part of Borthwick’s original squad, but now he is the front-runner to take Watson’s place when the squad is finalised next week.

How England need May to add a finishing touch in attack. The statistics are damning. They have averaged one point per visit to the 22, and full back Freddie Steward was the last back to score a try, way back in March.

With Farrell banned and Daly recovering from a knee injury, the back division is lacking play-making instinct. One solution may be to deploy Marcus Smith at full back. His attacking instincts have been stifled on the Test stage but he is now being considered as an option in the 15 shirt, following a cameo off the bench in Dublin.

Eight of England’s original 33-man squad are unavailable for the clash against Fiji (pictured – England captain Owen Farrell, who is serving the second match of a four-game ban)

Forget Plan B. Steve Borthwick’s side are now approaching the realms of Plan F, G and H

‘Marcus playing at 15 last weekend, I thought he did really well,’ said Borthwick. ‘He’s spent a good amount of training time at 15 and we see that as a genuine possibility, especially that ability to have a second playmaker in the team.

‘I think you can see we’re trying to be a team who distribute the ball more, we got to the edge against Ireland 14 or 15 times (in the 29-10 defeat last week) which is a significant step forward for us. Marcus coming on late in the game certainly helped in that regard.

‘He’s got an incredible skillset. We’ve seen it in other teams, fly-halves and full backs being able to interchange, it’s a great asset.’

England need to fight fire with fire. There are still plenty of assets at their disposal; they need to find a way to use them.

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