After Smith misses cost England, Borthwick confronts kicker dilemma

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By Creative Media News

  • Borthwick faces key player decisions
  • Sports require resilience after mistakes
  • England’s team suffers narrow losses

Anyone who has ever played sports understands the desperate sinking feeling. One minute, the world is beautiful, and you are doing what you enjoy most. Then, out of nowhere, everything becomes absolutely Pete Tong—that costly slip in concentration, that insignificant missed putt, that easy dropped catch. Heartbreak, more so than heroism or happiness, is integral to the game.

And the more extraordinarily gifted the individual, the worse it can be. Higher standards are required. They may suddenly be accused of disappointing their teammates and the entire country. Television cameras pick up on every facial spasm. And now comes the rest of the media pack to pick over the entrails, especially if the scoreboard indicates that the moment of fallibility was the difference between winning and losing. Call it the Riddle of Rory McIlroy.

At this point, there are often two schools of thinking. One is that dealing with harsh disappointment increases a person’s chances of success. It’s not the waking nightmare that matters; it’s how you deal with it. Keep doing what you’re doing. Humans are prone to making mistakes. Sooner or later, the wheel of fortune will turn in your favour, dispelling uncertainty and developing character faster than you can say, Rudyard Kipling.

Alternatively, a brutal call must be made in professional team sports. Does a coach trust the batter who keeps nicking off while adequately set? Or the veteran striker who has yet to score in 12 games? Or the brilliant fly-half whose shaky goalkicking has just saved the All Blacks from a historic defeat? Fair play to old Rudyard, but surely he understands modern sport is a results-driven business?

Welcome to the tricky crossroads at which England’s rugby head coach, Steve Borthwick, currently finds himself. His football counterpart, Gareth Southgate, has been there for several weeks. And who knows, perhaps the latter’s support for particular individuals was one of the significant factors in the penalty shootout victory over Switzerland? Hit or miss, you’re still my number one. Which is a subject in which Southgate holds a master’s degree.

Borthwick, understandably, was also careful not to hang his No. 10 Marcus Smith out to dry following Saturday’s dismal 16-15 defeat by New Zealand. When seen throughout a season, these things typically balance out. Who scored the late winning drop goal against Ireland at Twickenham in March? Who twinkled in Japan last month?

However, the issue becomes thornier as the entire team begins to suffer a series of near misses. Borthwick’s squad has lost by one point to South Africa and New Zealand and by two points to France since late October. True, they beat Ireland by one point, Wales by two points, and Italy by three points this year, but only Ireland was ranked higher than them. In a game with ever-narrowing margins, a pattern is emerging.

It could be a reality check. If you look at it from that perspective, Borthwick’s young side isn’t just a little behind the world’s finest. Remember all the terrible defeats Clive Woodward’s team had to overcome before becoming world champions in 2003? Keep the faith. However, South Africa won last year’s World Cup with three consecutive single-point knockout victories. It was no accident, and England’s maddening near misses are not entirely down to the vagaries of fate.

This was the frank point made by England No. 8 Ben Earl after another whirlwind of personal performance in Dunedin on Saturday night. Competitors like him want to win today, not in six or nine months. “It is obvious we are progressing, but now we have to start winning these close games,” Earl replied. And if the players and management are brutally honest, they will acknowledge that Saturday’s loss revealed a few hard facts.

Some bases can only be covered after some time. With Joe Marler and Ellis Genge injured, Mako Vunipola off to France, and Dan Cole on his farewell Sinatra-style tour of the world’s top venues, England desperately needs to find some new prop idols. Hopefully, Saturday’s debutant Fin Baxter will be one of them, along with a few more likely players who are now on this year’s U20 squad. Increased bench impact would assist.

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However, at least one easy solution is readily available. England’s starting XV against the All Blacks included a goalkicker who has scored 29 of his previous 30 efforts at goal and has been lasering over pressure kicks for Exeter from all angles this season. Before the trip, several of us argued that Henry Slade should be employed as a goalkicker, and Saturday’s game did little to change that opinion.

The counter-argument is that Smith’s confidence could suffer if goal-kicking duties were divided or temporarily removed. But what if it improves both his game and the team’s overall prospects? It is not even somewhat disloyal to Smith, an 85% kicker at Test level before Saturday’s costly three misses, to hope he remains at ten at Eden Park this weekend but turns up the kicking tee to the now in-form Slade. International sports are more than just one person’s potentially hurting ego; it’s about improving the collective and giving a team the best possible opportunity of winning. Now is the time for Borthwick’s England to demonstrate that they are serious about moving forward.

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