Three Six Nations challenges facing Steve Borthwick and England

It’s funny what a rummage through a box of some rugby memorabilia can unearth. It was November 2008 when England hosted the Pacific Islanders in London and a ball-carrying Steve Borthwick was the RFU’s official programme cover star.

This picture, which celebrated Borthwick’s 40th cap and his first Twickenham outing as captain of his country under Martin Johnson, wasn’t the thing that piqued the interest, though.

Instead, there was an interview inside in which the then 29-year-old explained: “There have been significant changes, both in the coaching team and in the playing squad, but when I look around me and see people with so many good ideas and so much desire to do well, it’s impossible not to feel excited about our potential.”

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Sound familiar? Of course, it does. All these years later, Borthwick – now the 44-year-old head coach – is expressing similar-sounding sentiments as he prepares England for his second Guinness Six Nations tournament as head coach. Here, RugbyPass sets the scene ahead of next Saturday’s championship start away to Italy in Rome:

Repeated slow starts
First, a good omen. The two most recent Six Nations tournaments following a Rugby World Cup have both been won by England, with Eddie Jones delivering a Grand Slam in his maiden outing in 2016 after succeeding Stuart Lancaster and the Australian triumphant again four years later in the tournament that had an October finish due to the pandemic.

If the most recent World Cup is a reliable indicator of current status, the bronze medal England should be gamboling into 2024 as favourites to chalk up a hat-trick of post-World Cup Six Nations titles. Except they’re not.

As encouraging as England’s defiance was in their agonising last-minute World Cup semi-final loss to South Africa, even the most hardcore English fan must accept that Borthwick and co got lucky with a tournament draw that gave them Fiji in the quarters compared to Ireland and France – teams heavily backed to reach the final – colliding with the All Blacks and the Springboks in the last eight.

The Six Nations draw looks to have again played into England’s favour. Whereas the French are hosting the Irish first-up this Friday night in a Marseille blockbuster, Borthwick’s England are headed to the Eternal City for a fixture that no one can see them losing.

Having the Italians – who have never beaten England in the Six Nations – first-up is quite the tonic for the visitors who have frustratingly made a pig’s ear of their four most recent opening February fixtures, three successive losses to Scotland and an insipid effort away to France in 2020.

This 4L sequence reflects terribly on the calibre of their pre-tournament preparations and Borthwick has now pinned his hopes on England’s new winter base in Girona helping to effect the desired change in results.

Breaking this habit of losing first-up will be a nice test of Jamie George’s influence as the new captain. England are expected to win but, more importantly, they are expected to win with the type of flourish that will have fans skipping along to Twickenham the following weekend confident of doubling up versus Wales rather than fearing another day of drudgery at a London venue that has long lost its fortress reputation.

George has been savvy enough to recognise this troubling issue exists. “The stats don’t lie… the performances haven’t been good enough, especially our home form. To have that record at Twickenham is hugely disappointing,” he admitted before the squad flew to Spain.

“There are many things we can look at in terms of why we haven’t had such a fast start. That’s certainly something that has been wracking my brains over the last few weeks in terms of addressing the team.”

Borthwick’s player management
It was curious to hear the salesman description Borthwick gave last week of himself as an England head coach still trying to learn the ropes. “There is a lot of sales where there is a message and you are trying to get a message across,” he suggested in Dublin at the Six Nations media launch.

“As ever when someone is trusted trying to sell a message, people look at that with a bit of skepticism initially and there is a period I need to show utter belief and conviction in a plan, and over the period you start getting the small wins, you start getting small improvements and just little crumbs…”

Utter belief and conviction in a plan wasn’t a takeaway RugbyPass took from Six Nations 2023, the third season in succession in which England won just twice in five outings.

Borthwick’s revolving door at No10 – where he started the campaign with Marcus Smith at 10 and then moved Owen Farrell in from No12 for the next two games before dropping him versus France and recalling Smith only to then drop Smith again the following week in Ireland – said it all about the prevailing absence of ‘utter belief’.

In fairness, Borthwick ultimately managed to drag dull England to a World Cup semi-final but you have to wonder about his bruising player management at times. Look at how he gave Ollie Hassell-Collins successive starts at the beginning of his reign and the winger hasn’t been selected since.

A penny also for the thoughts of the now-recalled duo Alex Dombrandt and Henry Slade. While the England midfield admittedly defensively stood up at France 2023 without Slade, Billy Vunipola’s extravagant flop as the supposed Dombrandt upgrade at No8 was one of the stories of the World Cup as openside Ben Earl was instead thrust into an emergency repositioning that was far from planned.

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A real sense of new
Borthwick used 34 players at the World Cup, and he has 36 with him in Girona just days out from Thursday’s trip across the Mediterranean for their round-one Italian job. Ten of the 20 forwards in Spain weren’t at France 2023 while 10 of the 16 backs are also different from the squad that made Le Touquet-Paris-Plage a real English home away from home at the finals.

Having just 16 of the 34 from the bronze medal campaign indicates a hefty overhaul and, on the surface, it is.
Drill down, though, and this impression of this wholesale overhaul isn’t what it seems.

Unless rookie Fin Smith is thrust into the limelight, the half-backs, front row and second row will all have familiar World Cup faces wearing the starting shirts at Stadio Olimpico. But things do get very interesting at back row, midfield and wing.

Just two of the seven France 2023 back-rowers – Earl and mid-tournament call-up Underhill – are up for Six Nations selection and it’s similar out the back where Elliot Daly and Freddie Steward are the sole two repeats in the 10 centre/back three options that Borthwick will deliberate over ahead of this Thursday’s starting team announcement.

New faces always spark energy and excitement amongst supporters of any sports team and this weekend surely is a perfect opportunity for Borthwick to provide evidence that he is indeed intent on evolving England and the style of turgid play that bored so many of their fans across his first year in charge.

Loosehead (3): Genge, Marler, *Obano – Missing from RWC 2023: Rodd (injured);
Tighthead (3): Cole, *Heyes, Start – Missing from RWC 2023: Sinckler (dropped);
Hooker (3): *Blamire, Dan, George – Missing from RWC 2023: Walker (dropped);
Lock (4): Chessum, *Coles, *Ewels, Itoje – Missing from RWC 2023: Martin (injured), Ribbans (ineligible);
Back row (7): *Cunningham-South, *Curry B, *Dombrandt, Earl, *Pearson, *Roots, Underhill – Missing from RWC 2023: Curry T (injured), Lawes (Test retirement), Ludlam (injured), Willis (ineligible), Vunipola (dropped);
Scrum-half (3): Care, Mitchell, Spencer – Missing from RWC 2023: Youngs (Test retirement);
Out-half (3): Ford, *F Smith, M Smith – Missing from RWC 2023: Farrell (Test sabbatical);
Midfield (4): *Dingwall, *Freeman, *Ojomah, *Slade – Missing from RWC 2023: Lawrence (injured), Marchant (ineligible), Tuilagi (injured);
Back three (6): Daly, * Feyi-Waboso, *Muir, *Furbank, *Roebuck, Steward – Missing from RWC 2023: Arundell (ineligible), Malins (dropped), May (Test retirement).


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