Steve Borthwick is known for his in-depth use of data, so the new England head coach will have been encouraged by statistical evidence of progress in his first Test — despite the grim result.
Losing 29-23 at home against Scotland was not part of the master-plan. Borthwick and his squad were deflated by a third successive Calcutta Cup defeat and the failure to launch the new era in winning fashion at Twickenham.
But there was some optimism amid the frustration and that is justified by indications that they have already made significant strides, following the calamitous autumn campaign which led to the sacking of Eddie Jones.
In the aftermath of the Six Nations opener, Borthwick laid bare the scale of the mess he had inherited, saying: ‘When I looked at the team in the autumn, when I measured the team and got all the data for the team, we weren’t good at anything.’
So how did his side match up to the one which stuttered through the November series? Based solely on the data, they appear to have undergone an attacking transformation, which is a tribute to the impact of Nick Evans, who is on loan from Harlequins. If he continues to be such a positive influence, Borthwick will surely try to retain his services far beyond this championship.
England were deflated by the failure to launch the new era in winning fashion at Twickenham
The stats which leap out are those which show that England made many more runs and gained many more metres than they did in November.
Even when they put a half-century of points on Japan, they were not anything like as productive in taking the ball forward as they were against Scotland.
The hosts managed more than 100 additional carries compared to that one-sided clash with Japan. They also made more than twice as many metres as they did in the defeat against South Africa, the last fixture before Borthwick took charge.
However, England did not rip through Scotland with X-factor running from deep. The visitors’ defence was magnificent, so their rivals had to do it the hard way.
There were only two English line-breaks, yet they still managed to open up Gregor Townsend’s team to claim three tries, reward for their ability to maintain possession high up the field.
England’s territorial supremacy — on the back of long, in-field kicking — was emphatic. Their 71 per cent territory figure was far above anything they managed in November. There were also far more passes than they managed in any of the autumn Tests.
There was some optimism amid the frustration for new England head coach Steve Borthwick
So England, despite 13 handling errors, were able to sustain pressure through their close-quarters carrying.
On the day, it was evident that the likes of Ellis Genge, Ollie Chessum and Lewis Ludlam were having a significant impact with the way they kept thundering into the heart of the Scottish defence.
That impression is borne out by the territory, metres-made, runs and ruck stats. England completed 125 rucks on Saturday. Their highest tally in the autumn was 99.
They kept pounding away in the face of heroic resistance from Scotland, whose forwards especially produced some monumental defensive efforts. Matt Fagerson made 26 tackles, while back-row colleague Luke Crosbie made 20 and did not miss a single one. But England kept coming.
One of Borthwick’s primary objectives was to improve his team’s breakdown recycling speed and that was another positive. At almost two-thirds of their rucks, the ball was recycled within three seconds, which was a significant leap forward. Momentum was generated and maintained.
England need an explosive presence, opening the door for Manu Tuilagi to be recalled in midfield
‘We tried to improve the breakdown where I think England were ranked the ninth quickest — so one of the slowest in Tier One,’ said Borthwick. ‘I think we saw some improvement in that regard.’ That was a fair claim.
Of course, even in attack, there is much still to do. England spent 5min 32sec in the opposition 22 and had three tries to show for that ‘red zone’ pressure – with an average of 2.1 points per 22 visit, compared to Scotland’s 4.1.
And the quest for an explosive presence capable of breaking the line may open the door for Manu Tuilagi to be recalled in midfield. Even if his clout is diminished, it remains unsurpassed in this country.
Borthwick spoke about rebuilding the set piece, with a primary focus on the scrum. That area was a success, with just one penalty conceded, set against two by the Scots, under pressure from the England pack. It was discernible progress after the ordeal against the Springboks.
Conversely, the lineout suffered a couple of lapses which will have frustrated the head coach, given his formidable expertise in that area.
And the defence troubles were reflected in a tackle success rate which was lower than any in the autumn. Kevin Sinfield will not like that. It is bound to be better against Italy and it will need to be, as the Azzurri are adventurous and threatening these days.
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