I would not be quick to criticise England’s defeat by Scotland. Overall it was a fair performance, but there is one looming area of concern for me – and I am sure for many England fans – after that match.
New head coach Steve Borthwick has boxed himself in by choosing Owen Farrell as his captain.
Farrell played at inside centre on Saturday, resuming his partnership with fly-half Marcus Smith, and as happened so often in 2022, the duo did not quite click.
I cannot see how that midfield is going to be a good enough threat to compete at the highest level going forward.
When you are a fly-half playing at that sort of intensity against a rampant Scottish defence, you want other people to be crashing it up and making the carries to create the space for your next wave of attack, which will include you. Unfortunately that is not in Farrell’s skillset as a 12.
The problem is, with Farrell as captain, if Borthwick experiments in that area and drops his skipper as a result – that is going to be massive news.
I do not think people would have questioned it if he had not made Farrell captain in the first place and that is an unnecessary pressure Borthwick has put on himself.
I understand that Farrell brings a huge amount to the team. I am just not sure we should be asking him to play at 12 when he has been playing better at 10 for his club Saracens.
Steve Borthwick looks at Owen Farrell
Steve Borthwick and Owen Farrell were previously team-mates at Saracens
Outside centre Joe Marchant was hard done by as a result of England’s misfiring 10 and 12 on Saturday.
Marchant did not have the space to exploit the opposition because dents were not being made in the early phases.
If you had either Farrell or Smith at 10 and more of a dominator at 12 who could distribute as a second thought, rather than Farrell distributing at first thought, then all of a sudden Joe Marchant comes into the game.
Borthwick might want that feel of having two 10s but then you have got to have ball-carriers to break the gainline.
You have got to look to your forward pack or your wingers to do that. That is not really England’s style and there was imbalance.
Maybe we should give an opportunity to Manu Tuilagi or Ollie Lawrence at 12 and see what that brings. Smith, Tuilagi and Marchant – on paper I think that has significant potential.
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‘England did offer some clarity’
One positive is that we did see some clarity in how England want to play. That was lacking at the end of Eddie Jones’ reign as head coach.
England wanted to go through the phases. If they were in doubt within their own half, they were going to kick the ball away long for a kick-chase.
It obviously did not work on the occasion that Duhan van der Merwe scored but in general their close-quarter defence looked very sharp and well-drilled.
Scotland looked really solid in their defence too. There was not a moment in the early phases of play that you thought England were going to get through.
Ellis Genge, Kyle Sinckler and Lewis Ludlam were happy to take the ball up, making a couple of yards time after time to tire the opposition out so that they could exploit the wider channels.
It did work sometimes but as has been proven, that is not enough to win big Test matches when the opposition have got plenty in their armoury.
‘England have to learn to finish games’
The final area that England have got to work on is an age-old issue. They have got to find it within themselves to close out a game.
It might be more of an England thing than something Borthwick can solve. I think it is potentially just the way players are brought up in the English system. It is not necessarily coached as it used to be.
England had an eight-point lead at one stage in the second half. They looked in control, then all of a sudden they were on the retreat.
Scotland scrum-half Ben White scored a try and the momentum shifted significantly.
It just seems to be a trait among a lot of English players that they get themselves into winning positions and do not quite have the understanding of how to get it over the line.
This has been going on for many years – I would say over a decade. It is not like it is an issue of the Borthwick regime, the Eddie Jones regime or even the Stuart Lancaster regime.
We have seen England playing big games that they should have finished off, particularly at Twickenham.
I have bleated on about it a lot but that is the sort of thing that will make a significant difference to the England side.
Thankfully next they have what should be a less challenging fixture against Italy to continue the work they have been doing with Borthwick.
Add to that the injured players that will return at some point – like Henry Slade, Elliot Daly, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Courtney Lawes. I think there will be even more improvement from England.