James Simpson-Daniel Interview

Updated: 20 Rugby Union

Former Gloucester and England back James Simpson-Daniel has spoken to OLBG on the eve of the Rugby World Cup, where 2019 finalists England kick start their campaign against bitter rivals Argentina in Marseille.

James Simpson-Daniel Interview
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Not pulling any punches, the former rugby winger took aim at captain Owen Farrell, questioned England’s recent ill-discipline during the warm-up games and defended reigning World Champions South Africa after their controversial 7-1 split to help their ‘Bomb Squad’...

Should Owen Farrell remain as England captain after his recent indiscretions?

JSD: He is a very physical player and very passionate. What I’m struggling with is his repeat offenders. That’s not the first high tackle we’ve seen from him. It’s almost subconscious. Is it the default? You struggle to wonder why he doesn’t realise he has to bend his back and go lower. He is a fuse waiting to go off perhaps and could easily be carded again.

Clive Woodward used to have several leaders to counter that prospect. There was Johnno, Lawrence, Vickery, Richard Hill, Dawson or Greenwood. It’s a big statement from Borthwick to name Farrell as captain at the World Cup.

The pressure is always then to start your captain. That could be a problem in itself? Should Owen Farrell actually be starting? People are asking whether Marcus Smith should be starting at fly half or Ford. A lot of people are saying Farrell should not be starting and it should be Smith, with Ollie Lawrence and Tuilagi in the centres.

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Who should start at No.10 for England in his absence; Marcus Smith or George Ford?

JSD: I suspect it will be Ford. Borthwick wants the man he knows, surrounding himself with people he knows and trusts. From what I’m told George runs the training sessions, Borthwick trusts him implicitly. I wonder whether Farrell getting that ban could have been the best thing for England in terms of Smith getting let loose, controlling the game. He clearly lives off energy.

Fly halves need their bread and butter. What is that? It is your restarts, your goal kicks, kicking to touch, bossing the calls. You have to remember when Smith was fly half and Farrell at inside centre, Farrell was doing all that. Everything was revolving around how Farrell saw things. 

That felt to me like you were putting a ball and chain around Smith. You want Smith to be elusive and do what he does at Harlequins, make the calls, back himself. He offers you something different. It seems like he’s going to be a bench player and being told to try and go on and do something if we are losing.

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Marcus Smith has been spoken about as a possible full-back replacement, what do you make of this?

JSD: I don’t think he is a fullback. I just think he is a very good fly half. I would give him Lawrence and Manu in the centres, and put a back three around him, and let him use his vision to choose the right option.

Borthwick will start with Ford but I think it should be Smith. I would have Malins and Daly on the wings and Steward at fullback. Malins and Daly could cover at fullback. I wouldn’t have Smith anywhere near there (15).

How will England fare in Pool D with games against Argentina and Japan?

JSD: They might not get out of the group. Looking at the form, why would you think they could? The gap between the supposed top nations and those in the so-called Tier Two has clearly been bridged.

However if you’re England, you’d think we sit a little above those and have the capability to beat them in a close match.

Don’t give up on England yet. People might say I’m mad but when you break it down into small plays it doesn’t take a lot to top the group and get into a semi-final and that’s unbelievable really!

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The World Cup draw is incredible - how can half of the Top Four teams not make it to the semi-final stage?

JSD: Two of the top four in the world aren’t going to make it to the semi-final. That is incredible. How can that be right?

But from an England perspective, it’s an incredibly disappointing Australia side. Wales will be having their own jitters and New Zealand are wobbling. The only ones happy with where they are at are France and Ireland and maybe South Africa. 

What did you make of England’s defeat to Fiji?

JSD: We have had several years of stumbling along. As a former player, to see it is very disheartening. What was really deflating after the Fiji game was the fact those conditions should have suited us. They should have totally been against Fiji. And they have come to Twickenham and won reasonably easily.

Fiji played all the rugby in the conditions, their set piece held up and they have at last found a goal kicker. They covered us off in all areas which was why it was so deflating.

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Lots has been made of England’s ill discipline, what do you put it down to?

JSD: That is clearly an issue going into the World Cup, and ridiculously so. Yellow cards and red cards abound. There are the things you can control. I had a coach at school who said we might have a terrible rugby side but there are certain things you could control – such as discipline and fitness. 

Being sloppy is what is frustrating to a player fan. You can see sloppy penalties, laziness not getting back on side, things like cards you can take out even when you are not firing. You can control the simple things in the game.

That is what is so frustrating, not playing a great brand of rugby, making poor decisions and indiscipline.

What about Owen Farrell’s red card, what went wrong there?

JSD: The whole process was shambolic and the way it was handled. The second I saw it, it was red. Had they given him a ban then people would have got on with it. The fact he was cleared when he clearly should not have been then overruled. It was so shoddy.

And who was ultimately hung out to dry? Farrell. Farrell didn’t make the decision. He made the decision with a bad tackle but he wasn’t arguing. He was ready to take his medicine from the off.

Should England have kept Eddie Jones just for the World Cup?

JSD: Let’s go back to where this all really started to Eddie Jones moving on, the timing of his departure. Eddie always said judge me on my World Cup’s and in fairness to him he got us to the final in 2019. So you either hang your hat on what he says and stick with him. But on the other side of the coin our performances were so bad, so disappointing that I can see why the RFU felt they had to do what they did. If he was coming second in the Six Nations then ok, but this has the potential to be the worst World Cup for England of all time. The RFU felt they couldn’t really do anything else. What I didn’t like about it was the timing. You either allow him to have his whole World Cup cycle then ship him on, or you get rid of him earlier.

Borthwick has been thrown into the role and it was an almost impossible thing to take on. He’s going to go into the World Cup with nothing to lose. Even if we don’t get out of the group you can’t hang Borthers out to dry and get rid of him. The RFU chucked him in, said, ‘Go on mate, it’s down to you. Our form is cr*p, you’ve got a group of players, some of whom are too old, some of whom are youngsters  who haven’t had a real chance, and make it happen.

He is an impossible position for a relatively inexperienced coach. He should not be hung out if things go wrong in France.

Either get rid of Eddie early or don’t get rid of him at all.

Can this England team repeat the heroics of 2007 when they were last in France?

JSD: If you look at the World Cup team from say 2003 you knew 10 to 12 of their starting 15 at least three months out. I still think we are scratching around. We maybe can ink in half. But should that be the way it is going into a World Cup? No.

What have you made of Steve Borthwick’s coaching team?

JSD: In the immediate short term he has had no option but to trust those around him to try and get a job done.

He’s thinking he’s been thrown into this, he’s taken this on and is happy to do so and he’ll give it a go. But in the circumstances at the moment he can only surround himself with people he knows and trusts – for example who made it happen with him at Leicester - rather than working with people he doesn’t know or might be unsure of.

It seems to help him see England through this hiatus in the time we’ve got and taking no chances. If he’d taken someone on a year ago and after six months he felt it wasn’t working and had to get rid of him, that would look shoddy.

What about the style of rugby England are playing, is it good enough to get to the semi-finals?

JSD: My biggest concern is when he won the title with Leicester he was not doing it playing a nice rounded game. I remember watching them and nodding off. You were seeing kick tennis, 14 or 15 kick long, kick return. The forwards were doing mini shuttles looking up and turning!

But if you look at it, Saracens started that way. And they evolved their brand of rugby once they learned how to win and had the foundations.

You have got inexperienced guys coaching England, and they are sticking to that with England. My concern is that this type of game won’t beat Ireland as they, for instance, are the best at countering that with their precision attacking game.

It is going to be no risk rugby, even doing box kicks in the opposition half.  

How can they change their style of play, or is it too late to change something now?

JSD: The question I would ask about this group is do we have the guys with the ability to sling the ball around and play loose. Look at Fiji, they have game breakers all over the place. We don’t have the fire power they have.

Our firepower is Manu getting over the top of someone. Ollie Lawrence could maybe try to shuffle through a gap. But if you come across big defenders and that doesn’t work, you have to have something to fall back on. But where’s our flair, where's our sharpness?

Johnny May is a really good friend but by his own admission he has been very poor for a while. To see him there now makes you realise how few players we have.

JSD: If we are five metres out we do what everyone else does, pick and go. When you bring it back to the 22, it’s like we’ll crash someone up, if we don’t make much ground, cross field kick and if we claim it back ok. We break down after three phases and run out of ideas.

When I’ve watched Saracens play they have got an amazing attack. They all know what they are doing, there’s a very quick ruck, and they get the ball away quickly . They are keeping defences guessing and even if they do read it they have so many options.

Bear in mind England have gone for the Saracens core among their senior players. If we don’t make the pick and go work, we struggle and cross kick. We don’t try to develop a penalty advantage with quick ball, catching the opponents offside. We are so limited with our ideas.

So how far will England get in this World Cup given their disastrous preparation?

JSD: England pretty much have their tails between their legs. I also know they’ll regroup and say, ‘Let’s just take it one game at a time.’

They’ll be breaking the World Cup down into individual segments. Argentina to begin with will be  their final. The only time you’ll see them rotate is against Chile.  They won’t go into it without respecting Argentina, Japan and Samoa.

If they can win a couple of tight games England somehow could find themselves in a semi-final. Japan’s team is not the same as the last World Cup. I think it's below par Argentina and they’d hope to beat Samoa. Suddenly they are topping the group. And play either Wales or Australia who are clearly way off their A game. So you’d much rather be playing one of them than one of the top four.

What did you make of the decision to axe Henry Slade for Elliot Daly?

JSD: Borthwick has felt he has had to choose Daly or Slade. I can see that. They are alike, both can play at outside centre, both have great left boots. I think it is the right choice. He can also kick a penalty from 60 metres which might make all the difference in a tight match.

Where will England’s confidence levels be going into the first group game?

JSD: Rock bottom. But they will be relying on all that energy they can draw from that Saracens core. I’m talking about George, Itoje, Ben Earl, they way they are when they win a penalty. They scream, almost do somersaults. Borthwick wants this to be infectious to the group. They want England to be picking each other up.

It is not arrogance, it is a confidence thing. That core is the one that has driven Sarries to win everything there is to win in the game. They have a strong mindset which they will tap into to lift everyone else. You have got to have core guys who can infect others and make them forget about the World Cup build up matches. Get confidence from a big first tackle, or a first turnover. You will have Itoje doing somersaults after that first hit and turnover. They hope that will flood through the squad.   

The Saracens core live by it. They have to have it. If it is not there, the coaches will be asking why we are not having this. They need that. Sometimes it’s almost like a car that’s broken down or stalled. They are trying to kick it back into life; it’s chugging and misfiring. The engine won’t roar back into life. I think they’re trying to kick start the team with that energy and once it does get going that could put them on.

What do you think of Steve Borthwick, can he turn the fortunes around?

JSD: He is very personable. When I was around the World Cup squad in 2003, so was Borthwick. We were kind of sharing the same space together. We were both trying to break through. He had Johnno and Ben Kay ahead of him. Borthwick would play well for his club each week but whatever he did he couldn’t get in. I too found myself thinking sometimes that I was playing better than some of the guys ahead of me.

One thing I did say when Borthwick came in is he would pick on form. That is because the way his own career went. All he ever wanted was to be picked on form.  He is hard working, won't cut corners and is trying to change the environment from Eddie Jones.

He is not a joker. He will want the players to lead that, and his staff around him. He will want the coaching staff to be more like a friend to players than he would with players thinking, ‘There’s the head coach. We’d better keep our heads down when he goes past.’

He will want to bring a personable quality to the squad. He needs the right balance in his assistant coaches. If you had five Borthwicks in camp that is not going to work.  But if he has others who bring the bits he doesn’t then that is what a team is.

Much has been made of South Africa’s 7-1 split with the ‘Bomb Squad’, what are your thoughts?

JSD: I don’t have anything against it. A side can’t turn around and say, our players are a bit tired towards the end of a game, so South Africa can't be allowed to bring on extra players. As long as it is within the laws, I don’t see it as cheating.

They’re putting themselves into a position where if they get two early injuries in the back line, they’re going to look like absolute idiots for having taken a chance. How anyone chooses to stack the bench you take a chance. Especially with the modern game, you're just one head injury, one challenge away from failing an HIA. They try that in the World Cup final and get it wrong the coaches will have egg smeared all over their face.


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