Peter Winterbottom Interview: Positivity over pragmatism, England's back-row and helping the fight against MND

Peter Winterbottom feels England need to be a bit more adventurous in attack if they are to begin making strides

After four defeats from their last six Test matches, England are searching for a spark.

Steve Borthwick's side begin their World Cup campaign against Argentina in less than a month's time but his team are seemingly stuck in a rut.

The England boss has selected a fully-loaded side to face Wales in their second warm-up match on Saturday in the hope they can produce a performance that can not only lift themselves but also the Twickenham crowd.

Last weekend's 20-9 loss to Wales in Cardiff was a painful watch at times. It was uninspiring and contained a number of frustrating errors. England must develop their strategy - and fast - with just 240 minutes of rugby remaining before they leave for France.

The absence of creativity in their approach and their failure to adapt to situations is something which isn't lost on former England international Peter Winterbottom.

"I think England, at the moment, are going to play a very pragmatic game [at the World Cup]," Winterbottom tells TRU. "I don't think they are going to try and play a pressure game. Without a doubt, they are going to be box kicking quite a lot and to me, I don't see them playing enough positive rugby to trouble teams, especially the better teams.

"It was a bit concerning with 10 or 15 minutes to go against Wales, it didn't appear that England had a 'Plan B' to suddenly score two tries. They never looked like scoring two tries. They didn't even look like they were trying to score two tries so it's the positivity that I don't see in that England side at the moment. Hopefully they can find a formula that can work for them."

Borthwick will be hoping the 'formula' he has concocted for this Saturday can culminate in more positives than negatives and despite the raft of changes, the selection of a more balanced side could be the answer.

The headline news is that Ben Earl will make his first England start at openside flanker while No.8 Billy Vunipola is straight into the XV after recovering from a knee injury which had sidelined him since April. Courtney Lawes is in the six jersey.

England's back-row is still a work in progress but ex-flanker Winterbottom feels Borthwick has enough good options in this position to have the desired impact.

"Billy at his best, he is a hell of a player," Winterbottom says. "If he is fit, if he is motivated, I think he is the right man to have there. If Tom Curry can find fitness and find some form, he is a world-class player.

"At six, it appears that he is probably looking at Courtney Lawes. If they are all firing on all cylinders [Lawes, Curry & Vunipola], that is not a bad back-row and Ben Earl is a very good impact player. Earl can do a job at basically six, seven or eight. He can add to the game but again, it depends on how England are going to play.

"You need to get the ball in people's hands and if you do that and you're breaking up the game a little, then people like Ben Earl can be outstanding. He is such a powerful runner, he is full energy, he gets around the pitch and he can cause problems for any side but only in the right type of game."

Captain Owen Farrell has also been promoted into the starting lineup for this weekend with the England skipper saying on Thursday: "We want to work hard so we are able to move the ball to where we need to move the ball to; to play through teams and to put the ball in behind them."

Having that flexibility in their approach is something which Winterbottom is eager to see but he feels not selecting the likes of 'the extremely talented' Zach Mercer and Tom Pearson as back-row options or even Cadan Murley on the wing may limit England come World Cup time.

But looking at the players who have been included in Borthwick's plans, Winterbottom is a huge fan of Marcus Smith - who isn't involved on Saturday - as well as the electric Henry Arundell, who does start at Twickenham on the wing.

The now Racing 92 man is joined by Elliot Daly and Freddie Steward to create an exciting back-three combination.

"The problem is he [Borthwick] has got a full-back who is not a runner," Winterbottom adds. "I love Freddie Steward as a player but he is not a runner. He's solid under the high ball, he has got a good boot on him and he tackles well but he doesn't add anything when you get the ball into space. That is why you need people like Henry Arundell who has got a bit of X-factor so having him with Steward and an [Anthony] Watson or Daly could do a job."

A victory and an encouraging display at Twickenham on Saturday will give England a much-needed and sizable shot in the arm, with Winterbottom wanting to see some more front-foot and positive rugby being played. The team set to do battle with Wales does look more dynamic but right now, will anybody be fearing Borthwick's squad?

"I don't think the big boys of France, New Zealand, South Africa for example will be quaking in their boots about England," Winterbottom explains. "We have got Argentina in our first pool game and the way Argentina are playing at the moment, we will be hard-pressed to get through that one!

"It is a World Cup and there will be a lot of pressure on a lot of teams to perform and England have got to build that confidence and the way they want to play and if they have that, then they have a chance of going far but they have to get it right."

All eyes will be on what strides England can make on the pitch on Saturday but Winterbottom also has a keen interest in some steps that are being taken away from the action.

Winterbottom is Director of Rugby at National Two East side Esher who are one of nine clubs currently taking part in the final leg of a charity relay run to raise money in the fight against motor neurone disease. The event is in support of the MND Association, Gloucester Rugby Foundation in its support of Ed Slater and Wasps Legends Charitable Foundation in celebration of the life of Paul Rendall. 

Titled "The Longest Try" and starting at Winchester RFC, the challenge will see runners complete a 15-mile stretch before passing the ball to the next club. Esher are involved on Friday 11th August and the ball is set to arrive at Twickenham in time for the final runner [representing Wasps FC] to score a try in front of Saturday's crowd.

"It is great that Esher are involved with this," Winterbottom says. "It is a great initiative. MND is such a cruel disease that anything that anybody can do to raise funds to help people and help with research is vital because it is a worthy cause. I have worked with the My Name'5 Doddie Foundation over the last few years raising money and we know somewhere down the road there will hopefully be a cure, but it is still a long way off so it just needs more investment.

"Doddie has sadly passed away, Paul Rendall quite recently and Ed Slater has been diagnosed with it so it is just a horrible disease and anything we and I can do to help is something we want to do."

As Winterbottom touches on, he has been a huge supporter of the My Name'5 Doddie Foundation and he is stepping up his own efforts to raise funds and awareness for MND by undertaking a gruelling challenge in 2024. In May/June, he, along with former Gloucester and British and Irish Lions forward Mike Teague, will be cycling from San Francisco to New York over a 35-day period.

"I think it is something like over 3,200 miles in total," Winterbottom says. "It will be an adventure that's for sure and obviously, the main point is to raise some serious cash for Doddie's foundation."

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