England Discipline Issues: World Cup 2023

England’s discipline under Steve Borthwick has been well documented. 

It’s been long accepted that over the last 9 month, a high penalty count and 4 red cards in 10 games showed England were on a downward spiral.

The Truth is somewhere in the middle.

The cards can’t be ignored, and clearly, there is some failure to keep within the high tackle laws by England.

But we also need to focus on the broader disciplinary issues 

The broadly held belief is that to win internationals you need to keep the penalty count low, 10-12 penalties per game is a relatively good return but dropping below that is exceptional.

So when after England’s opening pool win over Argentina the stat of 7 penalties conceded started circulating people sat up and noticed. That number alone is remarkable but if we dive a little deeper we get something really interesting.

As established against Argentina England conceded 7 penalties. 

For transparency, they conceded one Free kick (for an early engagement at the scrum) and had one penalty signalled but never awarded because Argentina scored their try.

England’s penalties broke down like this:

1 Pen that led to Tom Curry’s Red Card for Head on Head Contact.

2 Penalties were for hands on the ground at the ruck (Lawes and Earl)

1 penalty was for slowing play (Johnny May holding the ball away from the Argentineans)

1 was for tackling off the ball (Genge)

1 was conceded at the scrum, Stuart slipping his bind and taking the scrum down.

1 was for Offside at the ruck (Stuart)

All 7 penalties, bar Stuart’s 1st at the scrum, were defensive penalties, with none given on attack.

Of all 7 Penalties given only one was conceded in England’s own half.  The off-the-ball tackle by Genge, suckered into making it as Argentina came around the corner. 

As we can see on the Penalty Map, every other Penalty was just on or past halfway in the opposition territory.

To explain why that is important, Argentina is a team that is content to take long-range points as opposed to starting and scoring in the opposition’s 22. With Boffelli and Sanchez before him, they have two kickers who are good to kick for goal anywhere in England’s half and within the tram lines.

By keeping penalties in the opposition half England made this much harder for Argentina to do, and instead, they were forced to kick for touch where England could pressure the lineout and use their defence to dominate Argentina’s attack in the difficult conditions.

There is more to this, the 2nd and 3rd penalty were both conceded at the breakdown. But from then no more breakdown penalties were conceded for the rest of the game.

Both of these penalties amount to England testing the water. Lawes and Earl use their hands on the ground to stabilise and scrape back. Raynal rightfully pinging.

And yet, England won 8 turnovers. 

4 in their own half 4 in the Argentine half. To me, this indicates that after their initial sniff, they adapted and knowing that Raynal wouldn’t let them only took the chances that mattered most.

Another amazing stat is they never gave away back-to-back Penalties. 

Each indiscretion stood alone, stoic in its isolation, with no compound impact of one penalty chained to another penalty. 

Another interesting point is that England managed to avoid conceding a penalty for over 40 minutes. Between penalty 5 (Mays petulant grappling in touch) at 31 minutes and penalty 6 conceded at 73 (Stuarts Scrum penalty).

The question remains, was this a remarkable turn-around for a rag-tag discipline lacking England?

Well yes, and possibly no.

The truth is contrary to this belief in 2023 England conceded a total of 93 penalties and won 105. 

Is it a lot 93? Well, that’s hard to answer but since Borthwick took over England has only conceded more Penalties than their opposition on 3 occasions. 6 Nations vs Ireland, France and Fiji in the World Cup warm-up (though they did draw even with Wales and Scotland).

They’ve also conceded only 36 points from penalty goals. In absolute terms, each penalty has cost them approx 0.38 points this year.

This obviously doesn’t include penalties that were converted into lineouts, converted into tries so there is a bit more behind that but in terms of absolutes that’s where they stand.

England’s  2023 Penalties broke down as follows (points kicked by opposition in brackets):

10 vs. Scotland 10 (3 points)

7 vs. Italy 14 (0)

6 vs. Wales 9 (3 points)

12 Vs France 11 (6 points)

13 vs. Ireland 7 (3 points)

6 vs. Wales (1) 10 (6 points)

12 vs. Wales (2) 12 (3 points)

10 vs. Ireland 13 (0)

10 vs. Fiji 7 (9)

7 vs. Argentina 13 (3)

This is:

Six Nations 48/50 for 15 points
Summer Nations and World Cup Total 45/55 for 21 points

Of course, discipline is about more than just penalties. Obviously, we can’t gloss over 4 red cards, 3 for similar offences. 

Perhaps though as good an example as any of England’s not-so-new desire to avoid needless penalties occurred in the 73rd minute. 

Ford fires a booming kick return and Lawrence jogging back from the previous kick chases looks up:

Realises he’s in the 10 and sprints away to get out of it, leaving Earl to compete for the ball and disrupt Argentina winning a penalty of their own.

It’s as much about control in defence and attack as it is at the breakdown or holding your temper but with a long way still to go vs. Argentina they took a big step in the right direction defensively and that coupled with a penalty discipline is a real positive. 

Penalties of course aren’t just about goal kicks, territory is important and giving up locations for the opposition to launch from is also an issue, but still, the point remains they aren’t getting kicked off the park and against Argentina their ability to keep the pen’s down and in the opposition half proved instrumental in the win against a team that takes its



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