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England’s Rugby World Cup now rests on a big decision over Owen Farrell

LILLE — In the run-up to this Rugby World Cup, the England supporters who signed up to expensive travel packages with Twickenham’s official ticket provider were sent a white replica shirt in a presentation box bearing a photo of the gleaming golden trophy with a message from the head coach, Steve Borthwick.

Three paragraphs above Borthwick’s printed signature carried a heartfelt thank-you for the recipient’s support and also a promise of a limited nature: “We are all excited about the tournament ahead and we will do our best to make you proud!”

Not quite a rallying cry of “follow us to France and watch us win it!”… but as we stand after Saturday evening’s concluding pool match, a rollercoaster 18-17 victory over Samoa, England have four wins out of four and a quarter-final to look forward to this Sunday in Marseille, almost certainly with Fiji, and that will be enough for many of the package purchasers who flock to these World Cup weekends for a fun weekend away with a load of beers (other drinks are available).

The way England have achieved those results is nevertheless creating palpable concerns about a painful day of reckoning being close at hand. They didn’t need to win this Samoa match, and they very nearly lost it, but the optimistic view is England are like the poker player with the unreadable face, secretly assured of having four aces to spread on the table and sweep into Paris for the semi-final with France or South Africa, and party like it’s 2007 and reach another unlikely final.

Right now, it feels more like 2011, when a team of mismatched parts managed by Martin Johnson battled unspectacularly through a pool containing Scotland and Argentina before being spat out of the tournament by France in the last eight.

There was some really nice stuff by England on Saturday evening; things to hang your bright white replica jersey on. The driving maul hurtling upfield for 20 metres in the fifth minute. The straight running and sharp passing for the first try in the ninth minute by a galloping Ollie Chessum, the young Leicester forward who would be a diamond in a more dominant team.

The no-look pass from Marcus Smith in the second half for a short Ellis Genge carry, and the play developing around a trademark Kyle Sinckler pass on the pirouette, and Smith teasing the Samoan defence before he popped Maro Itoje through a gap to almost create a try for Joe Marcant. This was good rugby, and it is what Smith does, and the promise of him delivering it at international level had prompted Borthwick’s predecessor Eddie Jones to give him a run of starts in 2021 and 2022.

Then England reverted to Farrell, or Ford, then for this match, Farrell and Ford. And this is where the “buts” force their way in, because unlike France and Ireland and New Zealand and South Africa, we have an England team who slip into long periods of uncertainty, and you have been obliged during their month in France to date to joylessly note the clunky parts of their game.

The bounces off chests of short passes, among players like Ford and Farrell and Manu Tuilagi and Jamie George and Ben Earl who know each other well; the kicking as a bad option in earlier matches, done by experienced players who know the difference between a kick that makes sense, and a kick done by rote.

The knock-on effect of “Forrell” or “Fad” – no one has yet felt moved to give Ford and Farrell the affectionate merged nickname of a natural partnership – shunting England’s best midfield defender Marchant to the wing, creating gaps in the No 13 channel that Samoa eagerly tore into.

And how about Farrell blowing three points when he got in a muddle and allowed the shot clock on a crucial second-half penalty kick to run down? It had very nearly happened to the captain in the first half, too, when the countdown on a big screen high in the corner of the stadium hit zero just as Farrell hit the target to move past Jonny Wilkinson’s 22-year-old record of 1,178 points for England.

Afterwards Farrell, who rarely uses 10 words when he can use none about something going wrong, admitted: “I didn’t see the clock. I wasn’t aware. It was above where I was picking my target. I got lost a little bit in the kick.”

This gives the lie to the “England know best” theory, and also to the need to pick Farrell because he is the master of all he surveys. The shot clock immediately became a matter of humour for the crowd, and being laughed at in sport is never a good look.

So where do England stand? Farrell has 109 caps and a fresh status as his country’s all-time record points scorer. We know from his club performances with Saracens how he can pull strings commandingly from fly-half with a second playmaker such as Nick Tompkins (who plays internationally for Wales) or the outside back Elliot Daly, who was dropped by England for this match, or Alex Goode, the full-back who hasn’t been picked internationally for seven years.

If England within their camp, which now moves south to Aix-en-Provence, are quite certain they can produce a high-level performance with Ford and Farrell together, then keep calm and carry on. Otherwise, they must either give Farrell the guiding role or allow Ford or Smith to do it without the skipper clogging the channels outside them.

And, by the way, none of this is to gloss over the need for the forwards to make a stronger platform. Tom Curry needs more minutes to rediscover form, Ben Earl is a flanker playing at No 8, and there is a case for starting Joe Marler in the quarter-final, with Genge as an impact substitute.

England in the quarter-finals was an outcome you would have predicted with a fair amount of confidence when the Rugby World Cup draw was made in December 2020. When it came to the eve of the tournament this observer tipped them for the semi-finals with the caveat “it could be much worse”. There was doubt by that stage.

Borthwick was asked a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” question after this latest effort, about whether England might have been below par because they lacked the driving force of needing to win.

He restricted himself to saying it wasn’t the performance they had wanted in the specific context of the match. “We didn’t want to play the way that got us in those tough circumstances but… what we’re seeing now is a team that navigates the way through situations which has been an often-criticised element of this team. I see a team that finds a way. I see a team that never stops. Have we got to be better? Yes, without question.”

Borthwick also promised to spend every available minute to “capture every learning possible”, fully aware England at this World Cup have plenty to put right with seven days to go to Marseille and they must do it all before the countdown clock hits zero.

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