On Saturday night, a doctored image of Freddie Steward was doing the rounds on social media, showing the England full-back leaping 10ft into the Twickenham night air to clear another Welsh aerial bomb.
It would have caused more than a few people to do a double take because it elaborated on the kernel of truth, Steward’s improvement under the high ball. So it is with England, who have now won eight of their last nine games, their only defeat being a 16-15 loss to the world champions Springboks.
If that record feels manipulated, a closer look at that streak reveals that there are no opponents listed in World Rugby’s top six rankings. Those last five wins were by one point, six, three, three and now two points. Whatever the merits or otherwise of those performances, the truth is that England are consistently closing out games not so long ago they would have given up. Against Wales, they only took the lead from the 72nd minute after going 14-5 down to complete their biggest half-time lead at Twickenham.
“That’s the growth of this team; we are finding a way to overcome challenges,” said Maro Itoje, second row. “Perhaps a few years ago, we would have been on the wane, but we looked honest at half-time, Steve gave us clear messages and we turned it around slowly but surely.
“Maybe in the past, when we’ve been down, we’ve tried to follow the game a little too much. But what we’re trying to do now is trust our systems, trust our players and trust our plan. There were some well-documented games where we didn’t start well and then continued to spiral. That’s what we’re trying to change.”
That belief in their principles was perfectly demonstrated when they were 7-0 down with two men in the box as Itoje screeched out of the defensive line to break Ioan Lloyd deep behind the Wales goal in the 22. Score Ben Earl from the scrum followed. “Again it ties into what we just talked about about staying in the fight,” Itoje said. “We were 13-15 in body count so we were down but we were in good position on the pitch and we wanted to keep the pressure on them.”
England were particularly impressive in the final 20 minutes or what head coach Steve Borthwick refers to as ‘Q4’. In his first Six Nations in charge last year, England lost the quarter-finals in four of their five games, the worst against Scotland at Twickenham which prompted Borthwick to make pointed comments about the fitness of his players.
This was a trend long before the arrival of Borthwick who showed not only physical but mental weakness when the game was on the line. “If you look at all the situations the last quarter in the Six Nations last year was a poor quarter for us,” said Borthwick. “We had scores that went… we let scores go there. I think we addressed that as a team [and became] fresher when we are doing a heavy training load then when we are [also] faced him tactically.
“What I like the most is the characters that have been developed in this group and it has been bought by those players in difficult circumstances who believe that they will find a way and in difficult circumstances, they continue to fight. They stay in the fight.”
Borthwick was right to say that England played a “very smart” second half, keeping Wales at arm’s length by preventing them from getting into their 22 in the last quarter. Steward’s high ball ability was crucial in this period (see video below) but so was the precision kicking game of his half-back, highlighted by George Ford’s 50-22 performance.
According to Opta, their success rate of gain increased from 37 percent to 54 percent after halftime, which coincided with the speed of the ruck swinging. Most notably, after losing the penalty count in the first half 6-0, they conceded just one penalty after half-time to match Itoje’s pre-match goal. “Steve put it up to the group and I put myself up front to say the number,” Itoje said. “Last week, we had eight goals and I said, “Let’s try to be one better than last week, with seven”. Usually, the coach sets what he wants – the prospect – but he opened it up to the group and I felt I had to respond.”
Even as we come out of the World Cup with a third-place finish to stretch into back-to-back Six Nations wins, it still feels like we don’t quite know how strong this current England really is. Like the Steward image, their record feels like it was through Photoshop. A trip to Murrayfield to face Scotland followed by a home Test against Ireland will tell the numbers but, whatever the outcome, Itoje has promised that no one will want England.
“The best English teams in recent years, however, have always stayed in contention,” said Itoje. “We want to position ourselves as one of those teams. That is non-negotiable for us, regardless of the score, regardless of whether we win or lose, we want to stay in the fight.”