This is supposed to be the culmination of a meticulous four-year master plan, but instead England are desperately struggling to meet a high-stakes, high-performance deadline. Ready or not, here it comes.
At a time when Test rugby revolves around the “cycles” of the World Cup, the national team goes into its opening game teetering and swaying with faulty gears and a broken chain. At these stages, momentum is crucial and England remain stagnant at best.
Just remember how this ill-fated cycle began, with a rousing mission statement from Eddie Jones in January 2020 when he said: “We want to be remembered as the greatest team to ever play rugby.” But that great reset proved to be the case predictable than imaginative and England fell so far that most people won’t even consider them the best team on Saturday night in Marseille.
So much for the best laid plans and a goal full of global, historical resonance. After reaching the World Cup final in Yokohama four years ago, things have gone downhill since then. A Six Nations title in 2020 suggested the brave new era had begun, but it gradually fell apart.
A record of six wins in England’s last 15 championship games is a clear indication of the glaring extent of their decline. The team that was on the verge of peaking in the Far East did not gradually develop and improve as hoped.
England will try to put their disastrous World Cup preparations behind them
A record of six wins in their last 15 championship games shows they have fallen out of favor
In addition to the usual turmoil caused by injuries and disciplinary problems, Saracens’ relegation also affected a senior core of the team, and some of them never achieved those successes again.
As results plummeted, so did the incessant exodus of coaches and staff, with the sudden departure of John Mitchell a particularly notable setback for Jones. The Australian held out but the RFU hierarchy didn’t pull the trigger when they should have, meaning that when Jones was belatedly released in December last year there was chaos and time for a recovery operation was too short.
Still, the emergency resuscitation project was a desperate disappointment. Three defeats in the last Six Nations, three more in the summer, none of the clarity that was made out to be a priority and not the slightest hint of a reason for optimism today.
Other than words, that is. There were many optimistic words. England spent a week in Le Touquet eagerly talking behind the scenes about their renewed unity and intensity, but it all came after a shock home defeat to Fiji.
That’s the problem; The expressions of faith and conviction have not been followed by actions – at least those that are visible outside the walls of their fortified training facilities. The walk didn’t fit the conversation yet.
It all felt encouragingly believable until memories of shocking recent evidence surface. Borthwick, his assistants and his players have insisted areas of their game have improved, but which ones? It’s a serious question. The lineout remains pretty reliable as before. Otherwise… nothing.
Eddie Jones was released late, although the rescue operation proved too large
It’s not clear which areas of their game have improved despite Steve Borthwick’s tenacity
Since Richard Cockerill left for Montpellier ahead of this World Cup, the scrum has been forgotten. The attack was clumsy almost throughout and there was a six-hour break in play between England defenders’ attempts until Jonny May touched down in the defeat to Fiji.
This game also marked a low point for the English defense with 27 missed tackles. Tom Curry is now back and is considered the one-man solution to this enormous problem, but it will take an almighty collective effort to hold the line against the Pumas. On the contrary, the mouth didn’t cause any havoc. The breakdown was another problem area and England lacked the aerial expertise for a team that kicks so much.
In this regard, Freddie Steward’s recent failings are an alarming indication that the time he has spent in this England team is not strengthening the team as it should. The Leicester full-back has suffered his first career Test slip-up, while the inability to use Henry Arundell as a potential weapon of mass destruction as he pushes his pace too far reflects poorly on this regime.
Signs of progress must remain hidden in all data because they are not clearly visible to the naked human eye. So England will be able to count on plenty of international caps and a good reputation in this momentous game.
Without suspended captain Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola, Borthwick will have to hope other regular players can overcome their highs.
Freddie Steward’s absences are an indication that the lineup is not improving the team members
England need the real Maro Itoje to step up and deliver another outstanding performance
How England need the real Maro Itoje to step up and deliver one of those towering performances that made him one of the best strikers in the world between 2017 and 2019. They also need Ellis Genge to rekindle the fire within him that drove him to complete turmoil at the poor, stunned Wallabies last summer.
After naming his team for this clash with Argentina, which won at Twickenham last November, Borthwick spoke about the mobility in the England team. But look at the Pumas they’re up against – Julian Montoya, Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer, Tomas Lavanini and all the other powerful men who can provide a platform for the speedy Mateo Carreras and the goal-scoring Emiliano Boffelli.
Despite all the criticism of tight selections and narrow tactics, the feeling remains that England have enough good players here to put together a decent season, but they are not a good team, at least not yet. Longer term there are concerns about poor talent development, but for now Borthwick have enough talent to take the national team to the quarter-finals, perhaps even the quarter-finals.
The official line this week is that they were written off too soon, but that’s not true. Everyone who cares about English rugby is waiting for real, tangible proof that the national team can excite and excite them again.
The cycle of failure must be broken. Based on the walk and not the talk, this task seems to go beyond England.
THREE KEY FIGHTS
Jamie George vs. Julian Montoya
This is a momentous clash of hookers: England’s irreplaceable striker versus the Pumas captain. George can deliver a deft English lineout operation and support Dan Cole in his efforts to withstand the Argentine scrum. But as he proved at Leicester, Montoya is an aggressive force of nature and a threat to collapse.
Jonny May vs. Mateo Carreras
Both wingers are proven finishers, but May is trying to continue an England career that appeared to be in decline, while Carreras has only relatively recently risen to prominence with his brilliant performances for Newcastle and his country. May has pace, but the Puma has an amazing stride that regularly throws defenders off guard.
Courtney Lawes vs. Pablo Matera
If England are to prevail against all odds, they must somehow counter Argentina’s formidable back row. Matera is the star. At his best, he is confident as a tackler, jackaler and carrier. But fellow flanker Lawes can lead with calm authority, defend with ferocity, dominate in the air and also provide ruck presence.