A victory over the team ranked 22nd in the world, even with a 71-point margin, will not have convinced anyone that was sceptical of England’s capacity to beat the best sides at the World Cup. Hours later, Ireland edged past South Africa in a game played at an altogether different level of intensity.
Again, there are obvious caveats to England’s efforts against Chile, a team that have conceded over 40 points to both Scotland A and Leinster since the summer of 2022. But this weekend represented a step in the right direction for Steve Borthwick’s men and there were undeniably positive aspects to their performance. Theo Dan solidified his standing as second-choice hooker, Henry Arundell sharpened his finishing instincts and the defence still looks solid.
Marcus Smith’s display from full-back, where he stayed for the entire game, was another promising development that could prove extremely beneficial later in the tournament. And not just because the 24-year-old added urgency and spark to England’s attack.
Another possibility presented to Borthwick by this bold positional switch is the option of picking Smith as the number 23 and adding an extra forward in the match-day squad to make a six-two split on the bench. The Springboks’ seven-one ploy was a couple of mauling metres away from ousting Ireland. Though Borthwick would probably cringe at the term, he has scope to assemble his own bomb squad, too.
England’s head coach often speaks about maximising strengths, both of individual players and the collective. There are two main reasons why it is logical to consider a six-two. First off, Borthwick’s three fly-halves – Owen Farrell, George Ford and Marcus Smith – are among his very best players. Secondly, his back-five options are plentiful.
Smith began quite frantically on Saturday. In the fifth minute, having stepped up at first-receiver to take the ball from Danny Care around 15 metres out, he has Arundell to his right. Rather than throwing an early pass to give his wing a one-on-one, Smith hitch-kicks and nudges a grubber through. Cristobal Game carries over his own try-line, conceding a five-metre scrum…
…but Smith was clearly frustrated. Two minutes later, Ollie Lawrence and Elliot Daly cut hard angles with Farrell and Smith fading out the back:
Farrell feeds Smith, but the latter cannot connect with Max Malins and the ball flies into touch:
Against better teams, there might only be one or two chances like that across the whole match. Fortunately for Smith and England, there would be plenty more. This individual try, showcasing excellent acceleration, spurred him:
Chile’s kicking was far too inaccurate to challenge a rookie full-back, though this take was impressive. Smith keeps his eye on a cross-field from Rodrigo Fernández and hauls in the catch ahead of Game:
Epitomising his attitude, Smith took a quick tap after calling for a mark. It was his mind-set as much as his acceleration and footwork that enhanced England.
Farrell enjoyed a composed, accurate return from suspension as well. Indeed, he seemed to be a picture of calm amid England’s edgy start. Afterwards, Farrell acknowledged that the team “could have been in danger of panicking a little bit” with the score still 0-0 towards the end of the first quarter and having spurned gilt-edged chances.
Instead, the captain led by example. Watch him here, alongside Lewis Ludlam in the defensive line as Chile press inside the England 22:
Matias Dittus carries and Ludlam goes low. Farrell stays high, which admittedly increases the risk of a head clash and another card, but targets the ball and strips it clear to win the turnover:
Some eight minutes later, Chile are inside the England 22 again. David Ribbans, however, rises to disrupt the line-out…
…and Farrell releases Daly with a slick pass:
He will have read the body language of Domingo Saavedra, whose shoulders are turned in, before sending Daly on an outside arc:
Daly kicks ahead and England earn field position from which they open the scoring.
Ford is in fine form and continued that with another assured outing upon arriving from the bench. More on that later, when we have discussed the forwards.
Borthwick made a point of highlighting that Tom Curry is available for the final pool game against Samoa, having served his two-match suspension. Competition for back-row spots is ferocious. Jack Willis was outstanding against Chile. His tally of 18 tackles was eight more than any England colleague and he looked determined to fight up the pecking order again, having slipped down it since a strong Six Nations.
Ludlam was again resourceful and dogged and, even if Billy Vunipola appeared to be working himself back to sharpness and looked rather subdued, Courtney Lawes and Ben Earl have been two of England’s best at the World Cup so far. That is before you consider the locks and hybrids. Maro Itoje, Ollie Chessum, George Martin and David Ribbans all appear to be in good shape.
Borthwick moved through his back-five configurations against Chile. This was the starting combination; Ludlam and Willis either side of Vunipola:
Martin shifted to the back row when Chessum replaced Ludlam:
And Earl finished at No 8. Here, he picks up from the base and feeds Farrell, who links with Ford down the short side:
Aled Walters would seem to have timed his conditioning programme nicely because England are growing into games and overwhelming opponents. Could selecting six forwards on the bench allow Borthwick to energise his team even further? He could have a starting pack featuring Itoje, Chessum, Lawes, Curry and Earl with Martin, Willis and Vunipol or Ludlam among the replacements.
By placing a premium on positional flexibility, of both backs and forwards, Borthwick has effectively given himself the option of going for a six-two. Naturally, difficult decisions would need to be made elsewhere; most probably in midfield. A six-two might mean that only one out of Marchant, Manu Tuilagi and Lawrence make the squad. In different ways, all three of those centres have impressed.
A 10-12 axis of Ford and Farrell is potentially vulnerable in defence, especially with Tuilagi at outside centre. Marchant could start on the wing, of course. He finished there against Chile, with Lawrence beyond Ford and Farrell. In that case, and if Steward moves to the wing as well, England could potentially replace Ford or Farrell with Smith to move Farrell back to fly-half during a game and end up with a backline like this:
10. Ford or Farrell (wearing 12)
11. Daly/Arundell/Jonny May
12. Lawrence (wearing 13)
13. Marchant (wearing 14)
14. Steward (wearing 15)
15. Smith (wearing 23)
While that could seem devoid of speed, remember that Curry and Earl could be on the field, and out in the wide channels, to supplement it.
Ford and Farrell reprised their connection effectively against Chile, with Smith going nicely at full-back. The build-up to Arundell’s fifth try encapsulated the fluidity.
It begins with Fernandez in a cul-de-sac, facing a white wall of defenders. Willis is the one to watch:
He pounces over the ball following a tackle from Chessum and steals possession:
England are quickly into their shape with Ford at first-receiver and Farrell some way wider. Smith is on the 15-metre line as well:
The ball goes through the hands of Ford and Farrell to Lawrence, who carries:
Lawrence stands up and offloads to Farrell…
…who slows things down and feeds Joe Marler:
This screenshot shows Farrell on the far side of the ruck and Ford on the near side, which is just one way that two playmakers can probe a defence. In this instance, as Ben Youngs picks up the ball, Farrell bolts underneath the breakdown to join Ford…
…before feeding the fly-half. Chile are not as proactive on the near side of the ruck and another pass from Ford to Jack Walker allows the hooker to win momentum. Farrell follows up to hit the ruck:
England keep going, with Ford at first-receiver, flanked by Martin, and Smith nestled in behind. Chessum is on the shoulder of Smith….
…and gets a run when Ford finds Smith with a pull-back:
At this stage, Youngs spins to locate Ribbans. Farrell is close by…
…and is happy to help Walker to resource the breakdown and recycle:
As indicated in this piece last week, Farrell was always going to have to hit plenty of rucks with Ford and Smith on the pitch. On the scoring phase, England’s shape gives them so many options. First, watch the finish:
Ford is first-receiver with Max Malins on his inside and two props, Marler and Will Stuart, to his right. Lawrence is on the pull-back with Smith and Arundell sweeping around into a third wave. For good measure, Earl is holding width:
This angle shows how the break is created by Smith swinging around and onto a swift transfer from Lawrence, a take-and-give that might have been beyond Tuilagi. It is a perfect illustration, too, of the depth that a playmaking full-back offers to an attack:
Even if the match resembled a training run by this point, another moment demonstrated the value of fielding Smith as well as a pair of distributors in Ford and Farrell. Again, the framework is all important and you can see Farrell talking to Smith and Smith talking to Lawrence to establish this shape even as Youngs releases his pass to Ford:
Ford cuts across Earl before throwing a pass that goes behind Earl to Farrell. In turn, Farrell finds Smith behind another out-to-in angle from Lawrence to hold defenders. Chile’s defensive line is stretched and Smith, given a one-on-one in a great deal of space, jinks through:
England may well have qualified for the knockout rounds by the time their fourth pool fixture against Samoa kicks off, in which case they can use it as a means of establishing selection and refining strategies ahead of the quarter-final. Having Smith as a possible full-back brings out what is probably his biggest asset at this level, evasive running, and allows England to alter their approach significantly during a game. This has now been effective against Ireland and Fiji in the warm-ups as well as against Japan and Chile at the World Cup.
Borthwick is renowned for instilling an unwavering game-to-game focus. He will have his own objectives for the last pool game. Do not be surprised to see England trial a six-two bench, with Smith’s versatility pivotal to that approach.