Pad it out as much as you like but England were not quite good enough for the RFU to have faith in coach Eddie Jones for the Six Nations Championship.
Enter Steve Borthwick with a puncture repair kit and a World Cup in six months, and this year’s tournament turns into an episode of rugby speed dating, with Borthwick looking for a competitive mix that will bring back England’s bulldog spirit.
No need for a long look back over last season to see how far England had fallen behind on their journey to Paris. From four November Series matches they won one against Japan, drew with New Zealand and lost to South Africa and Argentina.
On their Australian summer tour, England lost to the hosts in the opening game and beat them in the closing two after a Six Nations Championship where they came third after Grand Slam champions France and second-placed Ireland.
Intermittent outbreaks of Jones’s abrasive chatter and gossip of his demise reached fever pitch at the end of the year before the axe fell and a familiar English face arrived.
Results: (SN) L (a) v Scotland 20-17; W (a) v Italy 0-33; W (h) v Wales 23-19; L (h) v Ireland 15-32; L (a) v France 25-13; Summer Tour – L (a) v Australia 30-28; W (a) v Australia 17-25; W (a) v Australia 17-21. November Series – L (h) v Argentina 29-30; W (h) v Japan 52-13; D (h) v New Zealand 25-25; L (h) v South Africa13-27.
A Calcutta Cup opener, and Henry Slade has withdrawn from the 36-man squad with a hip injury. Experienced Saracens hooker Jamie George has been named and will continue to work through graduated return-to-play protocols, while Anthony Watson has also been recalled following injury.
Courtney Lawes is also undergoing rehab, while Elliot Daly is out with a hamstring injury and Luke Cowan-Dickie’s ankle injury keeps the frontrow out for the season. With George McGuigan dealing with a knee problem, there are issues for England at hooker.
There are three uncapped backline players selected – Ollie Hassell-Collins from London Irish, Caden Murley from Harlequins and Fin Smith from Northampton Saints – while three others have been capped just once: forward Ben Curry of Sale and in the backs Leicester’s Dan Kelly and Alex Mitchell from Northampton.
Forwards: Ollie Chessum (lock, Leicester); Dan Cole (prop, Leicester); Ben Curry (flanker, Sale); Alex Dombrandt (number 8, Harlequins); Tom Dunn (hooker, Bath); Ben Earl (flanker, Saracens); Ellis Genge (prop, Bristol); Jamie George (hooker, Saracens); Joe Heyes (prop, Leicester); Jonny Hill (lock, Sale); Nick Isiekwe (lock, Saracens); Maro Itoje (lock, Saracens); Lewis Ludlam (flanker, Northampton); David Ribbans (lock, Northampton); Bevan Rodd (l, prop Sharks); Sam Simmonds (no 8, Exeter); Kyle Sinckler (prop, Bristol); Mako Vunipola (prop, Saracens); Jack Walker (hooker, Harlequins); Jack Willis (flanker, Toulouse)
Backs: Owen Farrell (outhalf, Saracens); Tommy Freeman (fullback, Northampton); Ollie Hassell-Collins (winger, London Irish); Dan Kelly (centre, Leicester); Ollie Lawrence (centre, Bath); Max Malins (fullback, Saracens); Joe Marchant (centre, Harlequins); Alex Mitchell (scrumhalf, Northampton); Cadan Murley (winger, Harlequins); Fin Smith (outhalf, Northampton); Marcus Smith (outhalf, Harlequins); Freddie Steward (fullback, Leicester); Manu Tuilagi (centre, Sale); Jack van Poortvliet (scrumhalf, Leicester); Anthony Watson (wing, Leicester); Ben Youngs (scrumhalf Leicester).
When Borthwick retired after a successful career at both club and international level, his first coaching role was under Eddie Jones as an assistant coach for Japan. Maybe karma there somewhere. A details man, Borthwick was England’s forwards coach from 2015 to 2020 and led Leicester to a Premiership title.
Key Player: Maro Itoje
The thinking man’s player, a menace in the lineout and at the breakdown. Also, athletic enough to play backrow, he has not been on fire recently but, when playing on song, he has the capacity to influence the course of a match.
Impossible to say. Parachuting a coach in over Christmas is a tough ask for him and the team. But Borthwick knows the English game intimately and if anything he is an insider, understands how they like to play and knows the players. Low expectations but, crucially, two home matches against Scotland and Italy to begin.
v Scotland (h) Feb 4, 16.45pm; v Italy (h) Feb 12, 15.00pm; v Wales (a) Feb 25, 16.45; v France (h) March 11, 16.45; v Ireland (a) March 18, 17.00.
To win Six Nations 7-2
To win Grand Slam 8-1