A doubting English hinterland looks to Dublin and St Patrick’s weekend for rugby salvation

Six Nations: English rugby has never been so low in the modern age after a record defeat by France in Twickenham

Outside the station looking lost and a couple arrive eager to be helpful. Pennyhill Park Hotel?

“Oh yes,” they reply in unison. “The England rugby team stay there. I’d drive you but we’re walking” she says.

“I used to work there many years ago,” he says. “The time that Lawrence Dallaglio and Martin Johnson were there. It was back when the England team were quite good.”

This is Bagshot and English rugby may have lost their hinterland.


Five miles to the west of the station sits the Sandhurst Military Academy. To the east is Sunningdale and a little further away the town of Ascot. Rugby’s favourite hideaway in deep Surrey and all around familiar names chiming with Irish themes.

It’s London city’s borderland busting with can-do prosperity and promise. The town of Virginia Water a few miles away ranks as one of the wealthiest in the UK. There’s Wentworth too. It speaks of comfort and prestige, a quilt work of the city’s favoured commuter towns.

But if the England team sensibility can be divined this week from place names along the stockbroker belt, it is not from the impregnable postcodes.

If its mood and disposition, its character and inclination, its tone, humour and current personality can be fixed by a place, it is not in the image or splendour of their Pennyhill Park Hotel.

A few miles down the Guilford Road in Surrey Heath sits a local area, Donkey Town. Symbolically today, in this moment, this place is where they reside. England are in Donkey Town.

That is France’s fault. They have caused immense damage to the brand. Carving 53 points into the team psyche is a wound that won’t stop smarting.

“There is a lot of grief,” says England defence coach Kevin Sinfield, speaking a kind of language not normally used in sport.

Sinfield was born up north in Oldham, beginning his rugby league career with Waterhead ARLFC before joining Leeds Rhinos, where he made his first team debut as a 16-year-old.

At 20, he played for England off the bench in a World Cup before turning out for Britain 14 times and England 26 times. He rewrote the record books. Nobody in Super League history scored more points (3,443) or made more appearances (454).

The point is that, like Irish coach Andy Farrell, Sinfield is north of England steel. Today he talks like a counsellor.

“There’s a lot of negative emotions and disappointment and embarrassment all wrapped up,” he says.


The England team are moping around the hotel grounds. Captain against France, Ellis Genge describes the funk as “dragging our feet around and the bottom lip out a bit. It’s Tuesday. People are still probably feeling a bit shit about the weekend”.

His feet are thrust straight out in front of his chair. He is blessed with a look that has natural menace. Genge is articulate, staring right back at 16 people looking at him, catching their eye as they speak.

The English loosehead prop told the England Rugby podcast in 2021 how he grew up in Knowle West in Bristol and rugby saved him from prison. His choice.

There is no fear of confrontation in the voice of Genge. He is aware of what people have been saying after the record score in Twickenham. Opinion is everywhere and one-sided.

“Steve Borthwick will find no positives in the wreckage of England’s destruction,” said The Independent. “Magnificent France run riot to destroy dreadful England,” printed The Rugby Paper.

“France mauling showed whole English system is broken,” said The Times. “Sublime France destroy woeful England,” ran The Sydney Morning Herald and “Le Crunch? England’s humiliation by France was Le Crumble,” said ESPN.

From the headlines it seemed less a defeat by France than debasement.

What was the match review like? Did you watch it all again, individual collective things, forwards, backs going through it all, Genge is asked.

“All of the above,” he answers.

What was that process about, he is asked.

“Educational,” he says.

One game doesn’t make a bad team though, does it, someone tells him. The rhetorical question is a lifeline thrown. Genge ignores it.

“It highlights your vulnerability,” he says.

It is day three after Saturday’s ground zero. Right now, England are unsure if the burning of their reputation has stopped. With a match against Ireland and an apology from Jamie George, there is an effort to move away from the mourning phase towards believing in a team.

The catch. Emerging too quickly from remorse and the accusations will fly that players didn’t care enough or hurt enough. Because that’s how it looked. Genge and Sinfield and fullback Freddie Steward all file in, each in a different stage of ‘the grief’.

Denial is done, although, anger is there. But the bargaining phase has begun. Still, it remains a triggering word in the public domain and the 22-year-old Steward mirrors the sentiment of his 42-year-old coach.

“Grief is a pretty good way to describe it,” he says.

Less than a year ago, Steward was named as the Rugby Players’ Association Player’s Young player of the year and England men’s player of the season.

Too callow for regret and misery, it is difficult to tell if he knows what it is other than a terrible feeling. He struggles to sum it up. That is left to the captain.

“It was probably worse second day,” says Genge. “It was great to spend a day [off] with the family, get your head away from rugby. Then the day after, when they go home you look at why and how that happened and your own game and that you weren’t up to scratch.

“Tells you that you are not where you need to be, that there is a reasonable gap there between us and the world. Every cloud . . .” he adds looking for an upbeat swing. Then stops.

“But it doesn’t hide the fact we got 50 points at home. There’s pain.”

Rugby’s cool Britannica is dead this week. England, the corpse is arriving in Ireland to be buried in Dublin. At Pennyhill Park, there is no other message. A story that writes itself. In that narrative, there is no English dissent.


When Eddie Jones was sacked, Steve Borthwick came in like Liz Truss picking over the bones of a Conservative Party previously driven by a cult of personality and chaotic Boris Johnson energy.

Since then, Borthwick and his coaches have set about reconstruction work. There is no doubting the extent of what they have being trying to do with Sinfield saying but not saying, it was much more extensive than they had imagined.

It wasn’t a job any team should tackle all at once. But that is what they have been given. Implicit is a criticism of Jones’ structures and methodology.

“I think some will be quite happy to see the situation we are in and the tough situation we have got,” says Sinfield.

“We have had to change everything in the last five weeks. When big organisations undergo big change, they try not to change everything, keep 80 per cent. We found we needed to change a lot more than what we’d have liked.

“We’re going to Dublin to play the best team in the world. I’ll know a bit more after that game. I’ll know a little bit more over the next few days about the character of this team about the DNA, the personality and what our fight is like up against a team in their own backyard. And they’ve got a big party set up. Whatever comes Saturday we’ll be better.”

Fight is the word that keeps rising. An apparent lack of it in Twickenham had a triggering effect on the largely conservative fan base as they flooded out of the stadium ‘football’ style before the final whistle. That prompted the George apology.

If nothing else England see Ireland as an opportunity to reclaim lost honour, the Aviva a place to reverse the reputational damage done to the crest. More specifically, the fight will take the team that respects physicality to the breakdown area, one aspect of the game they surrendered wholeheartedly to the French.

“If I were Irish, I’d bust a gut to win a Grand Slam on home turf,” says Genge.

“I don’t think they will take us lightly. I think they will give us the respect even on the back of 50 points. I think they used to love being the underdog team. Now they are number one in the world. They got to back it up.

“We got hammered at home. We’re going away on St Patrick’s weekend, St Patrick’s Day, literally a day that’s made for them and they could win a Grand Slam. All odds are against us.”

Genge says if a team “get smoked” up front one week, if they are a decent team they are not going to “get smoked” the next week. He says Andy Farrell is “a winner, a leader of men” and imagines Farrell gets Ireland “fired up”.

He says Farrell was “a monster in his playing days.” That he has come to Ireland and “highlighted what they are brilliant at”.

“You can go for a thousand things that you could have done better in the game [against France],” says Genge. “If there wasn’t that many you wouldn’t have lost by 50 points. This is about putting it right for each other.”

Ireland have become a touchstone for England’s return to the ordinary, a place they don’t wish to be but a better place than where they are.

Ireland is a gift for them to reclaim status, stop the doubt and the flood of men wearing rugby club ties out of Twickenham as the England team plays on.

England, says Borthwick, have to learn faster. In Dublin his tone remains regretful but loyal and George is still “feeling guilty”.They have successfully created a mentality of siege, hunkered down with only each other. Perfectly measured, it is all England need right now.

Borthwick sits upright in his chair speaking so softly people must crane forward. Courteous, Farrell’s old teammate is riding his own wave.

Is this the biggest moment of your life? He ignores the question. Was Owen Farrell’s ankle good enough to train all week? He ignores the question. What was Farrell like when you played together? He ignores the question.

England are still in Donkey Town hoping to make the best of a puncher’s chance. Over the week there has been a hardening of spirit. For that they are looking into the last place available, the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. Ireland is vigilant and watchful of it, England dearly clinging to it.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times