The Struggles of England, Wales & Australia
The Rugby World Cup warm ups have brought excitement and thrill, creating an atmosphere that no tournament has ever seen or experienced before. With the triumphs of Tier 2 nations and the rankings being brought closer than ever, whichever team wins this year’s edition will surely be remembered in rugby union history for decades to come. However, that accolade is almost certainly not going to three of rugby’s superpowers in England, Wales and Australia.
With their respective head coach changes, these three teams have struggled considerably to defend and gain results in what is a critical point before their World Cup campaigns. Steve Borthwick, Warren Gatland and Eddie Jones perhaps can impart some of the responsibility due to the short term nature of their period in charge but the dire aspects of their respective teams’ playing style must fall on their shoulders. As a result of their poor form, England, Wales and Australia are in for a rough month out in France. Perhaps even culminating in group stage exits and surprise losses.
Repeat for the Red Roses?
England have been the least impressive of the three sides aforementioned, losing all but one of their four warm up matches. Since Borthwick’s appointment shortly before the start of the 2023 Six Nations Championship, England have only won three games out of a possible nine, recently condemned with a first ever loss to Fiji. Borthwick does appear to be out of his depth and is presently unable to replicate the form of his Premiership winning Leicester team only one year prior. Borthwick has employed almost all of his former coaching team at Leicester and has fallen short of every hurdle, with a gritty win over Wales to show for his efforts pre-World Cup.
England’s attack style has shifted considerably since the sacking of Eddie Jones after a heavy loss to South Africa in the Autumn Internationals. Borthwick has largely kept the squad the same but instead shifted to a more direct pattern of play with a focus on forwards penetrating the defensive line to allow the backs to easily score tries. Unfortunately, a lack of tries has ensued, resulting in disappointing and mundane performances from the England side. With the attack faltering and an aimless kicking strategy employed, defence has become a sort of luxury. A record-breaking defeat to France in the Six Nations and an embarrassing loss to Fiji in recent days highlights how England will need to desperately tighten up their line or face playing the game constantly on the back foot. Borthwick has been unable to unlock the superpowers of Marcus Smith in the same way that Harlequins have and the increased loyalty to veterans of the squad including Jonny May, Billy Vunipola and Dan Cole will most likely result in England’s downfall rather than being the players to rise to the occasion.
However, England should not despair hugely. In 2007, England reached the final of the World Cup despite a disastrous build up to their campaign and a thrashing at the hands of South Africa in their second group game. The warm ups are meant to highlight issues for teams going to the World Cup and the last four weeks will definitely have given Borthwick a clearer insight into his squad’s problems. Although a large quantity of issues hopefully have been identified, it may be too late to find a solution and a group exit at the hands of Argentina, Japan or even Samoa could be a reality.
Love lost for Warren & Wales
Gatland’s return to Wales has turned into a sour affair. Arguably Wales’ greatest ever coach, Wales have made no progress since the departure of Wayne Pivac and have fallen further down the world rankings. Gatland appears to be more focused on his column at The Telegraph and writing about the exploits of Marcus Smith rather than reversing the fortunes of a Wales side that could be so much more. Wales possess a frightening combination of youth, with the likes of Rio Dyer, Louis Rees Zammit and Dafydd Jenkins, and experience, headlined by Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny and Taulupe Faletau, but Gatland has not harnessed their full potential and disappointments have followed.
Over the last few years, Wales have dwindled, despite introducing new players into the international area. Bottom half finishes in the Six Nations have been a common sight and Gatland has not offered any signs of improvement. A damning defeat at home to the world champions, South Africa, presented how Wales could not cope with the world’s elite. A series of unforced errors and mistakes simply helped the Springboks romp to victory. Gatland’s return to Wales may have been celebrated prematurely as the prospect of a group stage exit, much like England, could spell disaster and leave Gatland without a job.
Hope for Australia
Eddie Jones has the least worrying situation unfolding under his care of an international team. Although he does not have a win as the head coach of Australia since his surprise appointment, Jones has managed to bring out the best in his players. Angus Bell and Mark Nawaqanitawase have evolved into key performers, bringing hard running and exciting gameplay into the Aussie side. Australia have been drawn into a tough group but the struggles of Wales and relative inexperience of Fiji should ensure a top two finish and the opportunity to progress to the knockout stages. The absence of veteran players in Michael Hooper and Quade Cooper promises for a new era of Australian rugby but they may rue the experience that they provide in an otherwise young and uninitiated team.
The bitterness of Jones’s exit from the English coaching team prior to his appointment in his home nation surely cast question marks. This has proved to be the case as Australia remain without a win but encouraging displays against New Zealand and France do create hints of optimism. Australia, unlike England and Wales, appear to know their style of play, regardless of whether that produced results or not. Jones is one of the most knowledgeable coaches around so he is a huge asset to their ambitions and may turn out to be the dark horses of the World Cup.
The journeys of England, Wales and Australia are looking increasingly likely to be in the hands of their opponents at the tournament. Group stage exits could well be on the cards and something does need to change in each of the teams to ensure they are performing where everyone expects them to. Borthwick and Gatland should watch out as fans bay for blood, expecting results. But all that can change in an instant. Expect the unexpected as the 2023 edition of the Rugby World Cup promises to be the most competitive and exciting in recent memory.