Speaking exclusively to BettingSites.co.uk, former England and Newcastle fly-half Toby Flood previews the upcoming World Cup quarter-final clash against Fiji.
As well as examining why England just haven’t clicked at the tournament in France, Flood examines England’s fly-half options and how the central midfield options also haven’t clicked without Henry Slade at outside centre.
Flood also expects to see former England boss Eddie Jones step away from management altogether after Australia’s catastrophic campaign and heaps praise on former foe Johnny Sexton.
Question. Thoughts on England at this World Cup? Turgid?
Toby Flood: I wouldn’t disagree! The rugby itself since Steve Borthwick has come in has not been eye-catching. But that was the same at Leicester. He has a formulaic way of playing and wants to squeeze and pressurise teams and use the ability to kick. George Ford’s kicking repertoire lent into that.
England are in trouble when they have to chase the game as you saw against Samoa last weekend. They are not bereft of ideas, but they can’t just turn on the light switch and start running from anywhere. They still need to go through those steps to build pressure.
You look at the quality of personnel most have been recognised through their careers as leading if not world class players in their position. There is a lack of confidence and a lack of steel. On the back of the warm-up games they were left shell shocked and low.
But their response was exceptional against Argentina. The Pumas didn’t manage the game very well. But then George did control it and England came through with a fantastic performance. I know they only crept past Samoa.
In terms of catching the eye, the argument has always been to be honest it doesn’t really matter. That’s not what World Cups are about. You win World Cups not by playing attractive rugby but by beating sides up and suffocating them. That seems to be statistically the way forward.
That for me is where Steve Borthwick’s head is. He is very analytical; gym stats, line out stats, and technical things, how good the lift was, how high the ball was thrown. He relies heavily on that sort of data.
Q. How far are England behind the curve?
TF: I don’t think they are very far at all. How it looks and how it feels they aren’t far away. I argue that mentally they were not quite fully prepared for the game against Samoa who might be regarded as a free hit. People talking about not having an eye on the next fixture, of course they did.
It is about time spent in camp. Look at Ireland and howe they dismantled Scotland. It comes down to the fact that they have been together for such a long time, everyone knows the process. Ireland are quite a formulaic team in terms of how they attack but it is their ability to put it all together. With England it is that lack of time and the feeling of almost each other and the knowledge of what someone is going to do is lacking.
I agree it’s a difficult watch, but I still say if you look at it and say England are one game away from a semi-final, then that would be regarded as a very good tournament.
Q. One off game England have shown they know what it takes. Is the final out of the question?
TF: Not at all. They might not have caught the eye but within I am sure that is what they have always believed. You look at semi-finals and finals, they aren’t usually free- wheeling affairs. What makes them interesting is the jeopardy and drama involved.
England will find themselves in a fairly strong position because they’re pretty comfortable in the way they are playing.
Q. Is Borthwick the longterm answer?
TF: It would be very hard to kick someone one after such a short time having been thrown into the Six Nations and if he makes a World Cup semifinal. He deserves time but if the games remain turgid and uninspiring and people stop coming to watch games then who knows.
But there is an argument to give him time without the pressure and the shackles of having to prepare for a World Cup, give him time to look at the team he has and decide what he needs without the pressure of having to perform at a World Cup.
Q. Farrell or Ford?
TF: I am a huge George Ford fan. I think he is the best fly half England have had for a while. His feel for the game is outstanding. I can see the rationale for both which is not a cop out. Thet are very different players. It’s horses for courses.
There are areas in which both are individually stronger. The way that Steve wants to play suits Farrell better and how they play. My worry is where is the second pair of eyes? As a ten if you’re playing with a Tuilagi and a Lawrence for instance, they are all wonderful players but all quite similar. Their first thought is not to expand the game or look for advantages on the edge or assess what’s in front of them. They look the big carry.
Owen as captain and the way Steve wants England and the fact that he is confrontational is why he has been selected at fly half for this type of game.
Having a second pair of eyes is usually imperative but in a World Cup where the games are getting tighter, where it is about winning the gain line and winning collisions you can understand Borthwick’s argument to bring in two big centres who can shore up the defence and also carry aggressively.
Q. What about Marcus Smith at fullback?
TF: The fact that he has been selected means he could become that second pair of eyes, he gets himself in at second receiver, and sometimes first receiver. When Geordie Murphy and I played together at Leicester often he would step into first receiver, and I would slip into second. He was that secondary ball player.
You see Marcus come into games and light things up. He is a fantastic player full of energy with a really strong skill set. People talk about that wonderful tackle Danny Care made at the end against Samoa, but Smith was the guy who then hit the next guy and dislodged the ball. He whacked him hard. It has almost been overlooked.
There might be a question about him under the high ball because if you have a towering wing he can nick it. But in terms of what he brings going forward he then becomes that secondary ball player who wants the ball in his hands and wants to take on the opposition.
It is not his natural position of course, but can he get away with it because of his natural talent, of course he can.
Q. Are England missing Henry Slade?
TF: I do think we are. That for me was the big surprise of the World Cup squad. He is a wonderful player who has time on the ball and recognises opportunities plus he can kick left footed so there were many reasons to take him.
Plus his presence would just help to change things up a little bit in the England midfield. But it’s obvious what Steve wants and at the stage of the tournament you are going to go back to type with a couple of big hitters and guys who can win you the gain line.
Q. Can England beat Fiji?
TF: They have enough to beat Fiji. The big loss for Fiji is the loss of their fly half Caleb Muntz before the tournament. Very rarely have Fiji had a goal kicking fly half. It makes it harder for Fiji because they can’t build pressure on the scoreboard; they need spark. And they need a reliable kicker.
That’s why England are favourites for this one. But Fiji do have that skill set to break down an opposition with physicality and brilliant off-loading skills..
Q. How do you deal with that?
TF: Offloading is probably the hardest thing to face. It is undefendable. That’s why Toulouse and France have been so good for years. They are fantastic at it. One off load can put you on the backfoot in an instant. Fiji are a team playing really well at the moment – one can forget the Portugal match – and if they can get their offloading game going then watch out. They have the ability to ride the tackle and get their arms through.
In all the quarter finals there is an argument for either side in each of the games. It is all out there. But England are probably the most favourites because of their history at this stage of a tournament in one off games.
Q. Neutrals would love to see Fiji win!
TF: Yes. They are the Newcastle United of rugby. Everyone’s second favourite team. It would be a great story for the World Cup if they beat England.
Q. As a former fly half what do you make of Johnny Sextons till doing it at 38?!
TF: It makes me wince to think I am the same age as him! We played under 21s against each other all those years ago. In his favour he doesn’t have to play 50 odd games a year, he is well managed by Leinster and the IRFU.
You have to give credit to the IURFU in terms of central contracts and the need to look after your players. The result of that is seeing one of your key assets, Sexton, still playing at the top of his game at a time when most have long retired.
I don’t think he is the best fly half in the world if you broke it down purely in terms of skill sets although he is up there, but it is his mental fortitude, his desire to win, and the key component of how he operates and how integral he is to that Irland team. He is their most important player. He is almost like Tom Brady the legendary NFL quarter back.
Q. Will never getting past the quarter final be a mental block for Ireland?
TF: The chat is that the All Blacks are not the team they were. I don’t buy that. They are an outstanding team. They didn’t fall away against France as they could have done. But most people think Ireland will win the game. They won’t fear this game or the fact that it is a quarter final.
What they will want to do is prove to themselves it is just another game. They have some great coaches who’ve been in this situation themselves. Catt and Farrell won’t let anything sit there. There will be a huge drive to ensure that the team performs at the highest level. There is an argument about mental blocks. The public makes more of it than others.
Q. Key areas for Ireland?
TF: The Kiwis are renowned for being a bit of a hybrid. They have the physicality and the skillset. If you can manage the breakdown and their ability to see and recognise space and take you on, that’s the main thing.
Ireland are going to kick really well, pressurise and squeeze New Zealand. It will come down to winning the gain line and winning that aerial battle.
Q. Farrell and Edwards ? Have the RFU missed a trick over the years by not employing them?
TF: I don’t think Shaun was ever destined to be England coach he was with Wales for so long. Maybe it was too much too soon for Farrell after Stuart Lancaster. Maybe that’s part of their learning curve.
Coaches need to have been around a big organisation to learn and grow. The system in Ireland is so geared towards the national team. That can’t happen in England because of the systems in place.
Q. Favourites for the tournament?
TF: I haven’t been able to get past South Africa for two years. I know they are playing the hosts, but there is that niggle in the back of my head that South Africa have a way of winning a World Cup. When it comes down to big games there is something about them.
If they can mitigate the amount of mistakes they make then they put themselves in a position where they can suffocate you. There is something in their DNA.
Q. Eddie Jones Is he a busted flush now as an international coach?
TF: There is still something about him. When his back is against the wall he comes out fighting. Whether he has got more time in his locker, I don’t know.
There is an argument that having fallen off the back of England and now Australia and how he managed them coming into the tournament, that Australia will feel that it is time to have someone who doesn’t bring baggage and the legacy of the past with him. He is still a great rugby brain and maybe his ideal role is on a consultancy basis.