WORLD CUP? NO CHANCE!
Grim reality when the best England can hope for is to avoid an early exit
DAYS before this humiliation, Ellis Genge was speaking about England’s predicament and he said: ‘It’s when you’ve not necessarily hit rock bottom, but you are not performing as well as you can.’
Now, the situation has changed for the worse. This is rock bottom. France might as well have taken the Twickenham pitch home with them as they did more than enough to claim ownership rights and the hapless, eclipsed hosts could do nothing about it.
Let’s just clear something up right away. England cannot win the World Cup this year. No chance. It’s coming round fast and they are miles off the global pace. Realistically, all they can hope for is to avoid an early exit and start building for the future. What a bleak prospect for the world’s richest and best-resourced rugby nation.
If Steve Borthwick’s national team play anything like this in the autumn, they will lose to Argentina — again — and could find themselves in danger against their second pool opponents, Japan, in Nice. Even if they manage to navigate through the round-robin stage, they will surely reach a cliff edge soon after.
On Saturday night, social media was awash with pictures of Eddie Jones, laughing — as he could be in October, at his former team’s expense. It is hardly a wild leap of the imagination to see England losing their opener against Argentina, to force them into the path of Jones’s Wallabies in the quarterfinals, back in Marseille.
Having been inexplicably allowed by the RFU to head home and plot against them on behalf of his native Australia, it would be just like Jones to harness the power of the likes of Will Skelton, Samu Kerevi and Taniela Tupou, to achieve a revenge result. And that is if England qualify from their pool, which does not appear a given at this gloomy juncture.
Even in the easier half of the imbalanced draw, the Red Rose could wilt. Failure to reach the knockout phase is unthinkable — just ask Stuart Lancaster. Failure to reach a semi-final, via such a helpful route, would not be good enough either.
For the third successive year, England are staggering towards a Six Nations return of three defeats from five games. If that ugly scenario comes to pass, as is all but inevitable, RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney should be facing renewed pressure from the union’s chairman (if anyone can find him) and the rest of his board.
Without a rapid transformation in the next five days, England face oblivion in Dublin. Perhaps being cast as cannon fodder for the Irish will stir up a powerful mood of defiance, but on the latest evidence it would be a shock if they even salvage honour in defeat.
France reached a stunning performance peak at Twickenham, led by the revitalised Gregory Alldritt, Charles Ollivon, captain Antoine Dupont, galloping, try- scoring lock Thibaud Flament and the midfield alliance of Jonathan Danty and Gael Fickou. The visitors were magnificent, but England were passive and they were pulverised. It was a shocking sight.
Limited targets were not met. England have talked about base layers of fight and clarity and re- connecting with their public. Well, they surrendered meekly and the home defence was often absent without leave. Was it a chronic system failure or a question of attitude? Kevin Sinfield is still finding his feet in the national set-up but he is already under siege. Clarity? There was no sign of it. England had no shape or purpose. They did not function, apart from a tiny sliver of the second half when Alex Mitchell added tempo and Freddie Steward scored.
As for re- connecting with the public, there were murmurs of dissent during the early kicktennis phase, then frustrations grew louder until a last- quarter walk- out. When the final whistle put England out of their misery, the boos were jarringly loud.
The last time that happened, the head coach lost his job. For now, there is none of that jeopardy as Borthwick (left) is still in the early stages of his mission. The party line is it will take a long time to achieve any tangible progress, but is that really inevitable? Under Fabien Galthie, France have won 28 of 35 Tests. After being Six Nations runners-up twice, they won a Grand Slam last year. They
have played once against each of New Zealand and South Africa, and beaten them both. There was an instant impact when Galthie took charge, just as there was when Jones was appointed by the RFU and guided England to a world-record run of Test wins.
On Saturday, England were all spills and no thrills, while France made light of the difficult conditions to score seven tries. This was a Gallic masterpiece to shatter their era of Twickenham torment.
So where does Borthwick go from here? Dublin on St Patrick’s weekend with the hosts hunting a Slam has the look of a looming English nightmare.
Sadly, in the shadow of the mighty Alldritt, Alex Dombrandt had the look of someone who does not believe he belongs in such exalted company. As for Jack van Poortvliet, it is alarming to see how much his game has declined since his impressive tour of Australia last summer. Mitchell added vital energy at scrum-half and should start against Ireland.
Selection surgery is surely on the cards. England need a spark, which might open the door for Manu Tuilagi to return, just weeks after it seemed as if his championship — and possibly even his Test career — could be over.
To think that the build-up had been dominated by Marcus Smith being preferred to Owen Farrell. That just didn’t matter. Whoever was at the helm, the ship was sinking, all the way to rock bottom. The worry is that it could be some time before it is afloat again.