On Saturday evening, Steve Borthwick called in at the HR Owen dealership on his way home from Twickenham and bought a Ferrari to cheer himself up, because his afternoon hadn’t gone quite as well as he’d expected.
However, while deliberating where he could find another fourteen Marcus Smiths, he wrapped the thing into a tree.
He was about to ring the AA when a genie approached him and asked if he could help.
‘Well, I’d be most grateful if you could fix my Ferrari please,’ Steve replied.
The genie walked around the Ferrari, inspecting the badly damaged car before shaking his head.
‘Sorry mate, this is well out of my league. But is there anything else that I might be able to help you with?’
It’s a long shot, Steve thought, but if you don’t ask, well… you don’t get.
‘How about a win in our game against Argentina?’ he asked.
The genie mulled this over, took a deep breath and puffed out his cheeks.
‘Tell, you what, mate… let’s take another look at the Ferrari.’
Yesterday was the darkest day in the illustrious history of England Rugby. In rugby terms, this was 911, the sinking of the Titanic, and Black Monday all rolled into one black hole into which England sank at Twickenham.
When William Webb Ellis decided that moneyball was a game for cissies, and picked up the ball and ran with it, he would never have imagined that his national team would one day perish at the hands of a bunch of South Sea Islanders. And furthermore, they thoroughly deserved their victory.
And with a gap of 21 points being the closest that Fiji had come to parity with England, not even the most pessimistic of England supporters would have predicted defeat by an eight-point margin at Fortress Twickenham.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, so let’s get the elephant out of the room first.
Yes… Ireland were truly dreadful as well, and but for fatigue and Samoa’s lineout incompetence, they could have well registered a first time defeat to another bunch of South Sea Islanders in Bayonne.
But this was nowhere near the first-choice test side test side which Andy Farrell will select to face Scotland and South Africa in Pool B in a few weeks’ time. Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Cian Healy, Tom Stewart, Finlay Bealham, Jimmy O’Brien, Jack Crowley, Ryan Baird, Iain Henderson and Connor Murray (despite bizarrely being awarded the Man of the Match award – or whatever it’s now referred to by the woke brigade) are unlikely to be anywhere near the starting fifteen.
For Ireland, this was a rather nasty wake-up call, but the only try they conceded was courtesy of a bizarre bounce of ill-fortune, off Duncan Paia’aua’s forehead.
Let’s get back to England.
With less than two weeks to go until they face Argentina, things aren’t looking so good for them.
Let’s start with the injury list: Kyle Sinckler, Elliot Daly, Tom Curry, Anthony Watson, Jack van Poortvliet, Henry Arundell and George Martin look likely to miss the tournament.
Now let’s move on to the naughty step: Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola are currently suspended, and Joe Marler could add to England’s woes if he is cited for his tackle on Fiji forward Albert Tuisue.
Finally, let’s take a look at the mood in the camp. The warm-up games – where Steve Borthwick fielded pretty much his strongest available squads – yielded a defeat by Wales in Cardiff, a narrow (if spirited) win over Wales at Twickenham, the now customary drubbing at the hands of Ireland in Dublin, and worst of all… drumroll… a fifth defeat in six tests, this time by Tier Two Fiji at Twickenham.
“Never before has English rugby taken such a massive reputational dive,” writes Robert Kitson in The Guardian. “To say Steve Borthwick’s team have a few problems to solve before the Rugby World Cup kicks off next month is the understatement of the decade.”
So why on earth would I stick one hundred snots on them?
Because while England Rugby is a self-fulfilling nightmare, it is also a self-fulfilling prophesy.
There was the same air of pessimism going into the 2019 RWC in Japan. England went into that tournament ranked second in the world, despite dismal results against Southern Hemisphere sides and mediocrity in the 6 Nations since 2017, when they won the Championship. Three wins in the pool stages and a draw against France (see post script) was enough to put an unfancied England into the quarter-finals, where they played and heavily defeated a poor Australian outfit. The miracle of Japan then came in the form of the 19-7 defeat of the All Blacks, which took them to the final, where they were taken apart by South Africa.
On the basis of this, England were seeded second for the 2023 RWC, and by virtue of this, are virtually guaranteed to progress to the quarter-finals, even if the genie doesn’t help them.
And what have England achieved since the last World Cup? Well, they won the 6 nations in 2020. That was the year of the Chinese Flu… remember, which caused a protracted tournament, but – fair’s fair – you can’t blame that on England. They finished fifth in 2021, third in 2022 and fourth in 2023.
As for encounters which those from down under, they have lost to South Africa twice at Twickenham since 2019, and drew at home against the All Blacks in 2022. To be fair, England haven’t lost to Australia on the past five occasions, but Australia are currently the whipping boys of the Southern Hemisphere.
So, based on this, why on earth do they merit a seeding which may have been appropriate four years ago, but certainly deceives to flatter now?
There are three reasons why I’m putting a few quid on England, and the first is because of their seeding. I will eat my sombrero if they don’t make the play-offs.
The second reason is that they still have some decent players. We know this because most of them play for Saracens. And whether you like Saracens (which I don’t) or not, just look at their track record. And decent players do not become poor players simply because they pull on a white jersey. So, my advice to Steve Borthwick would be to present them with Saracens’ jock straps, or to put a cardboard cut-out of Mark McCall in the corner of the dressing room. Actually… that’s not such a stupid idea, because what would motivate the Sarries lads would equally piss off the others.
And my final reason?
My third reason is that England are just two decent performances away from a place in the final. England will face either Wales or Australia in the quarter-finals, depending who wins and who is runner-up in pools C and D. No great house of horrors there, is there?
Then they will take on a decent side in the semis, but – look at what happened last time – yup… anything can happen, and bingo… they’re in the final again.
Now do you see my logic?
I’m going to finish with another joke… one that was also doing the rounds back in ’19, pre-Japan.
During the run-up to the Rugby World Cup, the England team visited an orphanage. ‘It was heart-breaking to see their sad little faces with no hope,’ said Joe, aged 6.
So should Ireland go out in the quarters and England lift the Webb Ellis Trophy, at 25-1 it won’t have been a total disaster for me.
POST SCRIPT CORRECTION: My dear and learned friend, Mr David S. A. Stewart, has kindly informed me that England did not, in fact, draw with France. No sirree. The match did not take place because of Typhoon Hagibis which, in effect, produced the same outcome. But in the interest of correctness and placating my most loyal critic, I have amended the script… and have also fixed a couple of other errors which he so kindly brought to my attention.