Pride and clarity – Borthwick’s new England era
|Venue: Twickenham Stadium Date: Saturday, 4 February Kick-off: 16:45 GMT|
|Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio 5 Live; follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app.|
There are certain words already frequently repeated in the era of Steve Borthwick’s England: excitement, pride and clarity.
The first two will no doubt be in abundance as England return to Twickenham to face their oldest enemy Scotland in the Six Nations on Saturday, but it is the third that will be decisive.
New Englands with revamped gameplans – particularly in attack – have often been promised in recent years and have come up wanting for lack of clarity.
In his first team selection since taking over from Eddie Jones in December, Borthwick has left the heart of that attack untouched despite a disappointing 2022.
Captain Owen Farrell remains at inside centre and Marcus Smith continues at fly-half.
Borthwick’s hand was somewhat forced by injuries, with centres Henry Slade, Elliot Daly and Dan Kelly all unavailable.
He could have chosen usual favourite Manu Tuilagi at 13 but instead opted for Joe Marchant as England build towards September’s World Cup – an event Borthwick refuses to discuss as he keeps a laser focus on the Six Nations.
Another new face in England’s camp might have had influence in that selection. Attack coach Nick Evans – seconded from Harlequins on a short-term deal for the Six Nations – has three of his Quins players to work with in Smith, Marchant and number eight Alex Dombrandt.
The hope is the extra level of detail for which Borthwick is famed will be the key that finally unlocks the Smith-Farrell partnership which initially held such promise.
Perhaps this time things will be different. Farrell has already proven to be more open in interviews than he was under Borthwick’s predecessor Eddie Jones, speaking of the hurt caused by Twickenham boos last November.
Maybe he will be different on the pitch, too.
Evans certainly thinks so, saying of Smith and Farrell under Jones: “Some of the feedback was that maybe that [clarity] wasn’t there, so maybe there was a bit of a crossover. It’s just about making sure that you’re very clear on roles and responsibilities.”
The midfield cannot bear full responsibility for a hesitant attack.
Vice-captain and prop Ellis Genge says in the autumn – when England lost to Argentina and South Africa, beat Japan and drew with New Zealand – his side’s scrum was the worst among the tier-one nations.
“With our personnel that’s not where we should be,” Genge pointed out.
Genge and Kyle Sinckler continue in the front row alongside Jamie George, with veteran prop Dan Cole – jettisoned from Jones’ England after the 2019 World Cup final loss – brought back into the fold to get the basics right.
Borthwick’s overall selection is more deft than powerful, and Monye says it will be up to the forwards to lay the groundwork for England’s attack.
“Last season the scrum wasn’t good enough and the set-piece wasn’t good enough,” Monye told BBC Radio 5 Live Breakfast.
“This pack is mobile, dynamic and powerful and if they can do their job we know what Smith and Farrell can bring.”
Whatever the plan is to combat Scotland, buoyant from three wins and a draw in their past five meetings with England, it seems Borthwick will convey it perfectly to his team.
Listen to an interview with the former England captain and you are forced to pay attention, so hushed are his tones.
Each word is thought through and delivered with impact – a communication style that leads Monye to describe Borthwick as “one of the most authentic people on the rugby planet”.
He is open-minded too.
The 43-year-old has spoken about watching the Six Nations as a child when it was the Five Nations.
His history with the tournament as a player goes back to his international debut in 2001, but his reading choices suggest a move away from the sport’s more traditional ways of thinking.
Apparently Borthwick is currently reading the decidedly modern-sounding Do Hard Things – a book that looks to redefine toughness and encourages the reader to accept their limits in some cases rather than simply “pushing through”.
Proof of his ability to engage a side in his plan could be seen in the 2022 Premiership final. Leicester clung on to their kicking-based game and it paid off, leading to a first Premiership title for nine years.
Forward Maro Itoje has known Borthwick as a team-mate at Saracens as well as a coach and describes him as an “extremely diligent man”.
Monye is not expecting a “high-octane” attack, but hopes at least that diligence will give England the structure they lacked at the end of Jones’ reign.
“At the full-time whistle, I want to look back and know exactly how England want to play,” he says.
Borthwick wants more than that. Having been criticised as England captain for a disappointing end to 2008 and start of the 2009 Six Nations, he knows the regrets that come from a poor performance.
“I want to help these young guys not make the mistakes I made,” he said. “When they’re old and have no hair like me, I want them to not have regrets.”
What Borthwick wants from his team instead: excitement, pride and clarity. England fans will think victory would be nice too.
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