With Eddie Jones’ reign ending, Steve Borthwick inherits a side that has underperformed but has enough talent to turn things around in time for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Planet Rugby writer James While believes five key areas are needed to complete a transformation of England at Test level and discusses them here.
There’s a reason David Gilmour of Pink Floyd is regarded as one of the greatest guitar soloists in music history: The simplicity and emotional connection of his playing resonates with so many and is so easily understood and equally memorable. His work is direct, simple but extremely effective from an emotional point of view.
Now, neither side of Jones’s ever lacks complexity or detail – far from it – but they were at times completely devoid of the simplicity and emotion of a great Gilmour solo. Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield need to recapture that emotional connection and the way they do that is by going back to the simpler components: a great set-piece, gas in the backline and dominance of the tackle and collapse. The message will be to understand your game, connect with the emotional support of your fans and if you give them something to remember then you are likely to succeed.
While Borthwick will provide the simplicity of the technical platform for players to thrive on, Sinfield will be the man in charge of the emotions – a man who can captivate a room with his words and his absolute self-confidence, one who will set a shining personal example to all of his charges and a personality that can make people run through brick walls for him.
Borthwick and Sinfield have no wiggle room or margin for error in England’s Rugby World Cup build-up. Simplicity and emotional connectedness are everything, and expect to see Borthwick sticking closely to much of the legacy of Jones’ system, but solving the dysfunctions of emotion and simplicity along the way with a very straightforward, no-nonsense approach.
Now, if Borthwick has one personal superpower, it’s his knowledge of rugby set pieces. Every team he has been associated with has provided scrum excellence and lineout perfection. Since the arrival of Matt Proudfoot with England as scrum manager, things have not gone quite as planned and England’s platform has not been optimal.
Expect Borthwick to start with the selection: he’ll pick the best scrummagers in the game, and that means a call-up for Tigers veteran Dan Cole at the tighthead and potentially more opportunities for Trevor Davison and the superb Val Rapava-Ruskin, two monstrous scrummagers and in case by Rapava-Ruskin, brilliant competitor to the failure.
You can forget Mako Vunipola – he’s spent the last five years stealing caps for England without ever looking close to being a standard international prop – and given the focus on solidity first and foremost, you can also expect to see Joe Marler back in competition, perhaps at the expense of Bevan Rodd of Sale.
Kyle Sinckler will be there or so but expect to see him used in an impact role with Cole still scrambling in the same way he does week after week at Leicester Tigers.
The French connection
That’s a pretty long-term view, but with the club’s finances unstable within the Premiership, more and more players are fleeing for France’s big checks. Traditionally, Jones refused to cast players based there (or in Japan) due to a lack of team training time they were able to commit to. Currently, the only big-name victim affected by the ruling is Zach Mercer, but with Joe Marchant and Luke Cowan-Dickie en route to the Top 14 with a host of others, Borthwick must negotiate to ensure players heading to France have adequate and pre-established release clauses in their contracts.
Some might argue that players make their beds and therefore should be lying to us, but the simple truth is that Premiership clubs have failed to offer the financial platform needed to secure the future of some very short careers and England players shouldn’t be penalized for it. It’s time to recognize that – and as a by-product, allow players to blossom into a more physical standard of rugby – something much closer to testing level – and that means the coach and the RFU loosen the regulations and help with the contractual negotiations to ensure a mutually beneficial agreement.
As for Mercer, England are desperate for defenders who offer comprehensive skills, including lateral jumping skills. He and Alex Dombrandt are good enough to stitch up eighth place for many seasons to come and, urgently, Borthwick needs to ensure Mercer is in his 36-man squad on 16 January.
Give me five
Jones spent much of last year trying to balance his defensive fifth when Courtney Lawes was unavailable to fill the role of her huge back row jumper, a situation exacerbated by concurrent injuries to Ollie Chessum and Dombrandt. both of whom add that lineout poise to the back row, something neither Billy Vunipola nor Sam Simmonds can really influence. No Test side enters without at least two primary jumpers in the back row and England need to find flankers other than Lawes who can compete might for might with the likes of Franco Mostert, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Marcos Kremer, Michele Lamaro and Scott Barrett.
In the English game there are a plethora of good sevens and six-and-a-halfs available – Tom Curry, Ben Earl, Jack Willis, Tom Pearson and Lewis Ludlam – but none of those players offer a primary lineout job as a superpower. At the block, Jonny Hill has had good time but is prone to the occasional brain explosion, while David Ribbans offers tremendous athleticism if not quite the same level of taut power.
The key to finding the solution is to understand that these selections cannot be made in isolation; it is also a formula for finding the right skills within the bottom five to complement each other. This means accepting that if Lawes is available, Ribbans offers plenty of pace and carrying power, but if Hill (or perhaps Harry Wells or Joe Launchbury, both Borthwick favourites) play tighthead locks, you’ll need more gas and skill six-handed maneuver. It’s not a case of selection in positional isolation – it’s a blend of skills.
Expect to see both Vunipola and Simmonds moved to grazing and an approach of big, powerful defenders with re-implemented lineout skills. Ideally, a starting lineup of Maro Itoje, Ribbans, Lawes, Mercer and Curry looks perfectly balanced on paper, with Chessum, Willis, Earl and Dombrandt offering similar abilities as the supporting cast.
Fix the style
Despite popular belief, England is nearly spoiled for riches mid-flight and in the broader bottom line. At 10, any of George Ford, Marcus Smith or Owen Farrell offers a world-class option, while in the back three, any three of 10 or 12 outside can offer blistering pace and a finish to burn.
Troubles of late have created a balance of style that wins Test matches. Too often we have seen selections that do not reflect the systems used in the Premiership. When Farrell shoots 10, he plays with another director like Elliot Daly or Alex Goode alongside him; when Smith dominates matches for Quins, he operates with a huge center of income that gives him room behind him to conduct his own orchestra and in both cases, Jones has asked the 10 of him to play in an unfamiliar system.
Given Borthwick’s shortage of time, and bearing in mind that he can’t rely on Manu Tuilagi as a big crisis center, we believe he’ll go back to basics with Farrell or Ford at 10, with a supporting cast around them getting better. their skill. Expect to see Henry Slade aged 13, Daly sometime back (both on the wing and off the bench at outfield), Ollie Hassell-Collins, Anthony Watson and Harry Potter to offer immediacy and grit on the wing and the reintroduction of Dan Kelly in midfield to deliver the best combination of bosh and bash of any English center qualified in the Premiership.
We believe the person who could lose as a starter will be Smith, not because he lacks him in any way, but because having the right players around him will require a much bigger reset operation than using the familiarity of Ford or Farrell. Couple that with the fact that Smith off the bench is a mouthwatering prospect and we’re pretty sure Borthwick’s approach will underscore the simplicity and emotional connection we alluded to at the start of our thoughts.
Bottom line, don’t expect revolution from Borthwick and Sinfield; expect to see them take what they’ve got, simplify it, and refine it to fit purpose over the next nine games. Timescales and risk profiles are too short for any other approach: once the World Cup is over, there’s time for experimentation.
Someone close to the England team once remarked on Borthwick’s tenure with Jones as ‘making sense of Eddie’s madness and brilliance’ – that’s exactly what the Red Rose need and you can bet every dollar it will be what Borthwick will focus on.
England 23 v Scotland by James While: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Dan Kelly, 11 Ollie Hassell-Collins, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Jack van Poortvliet, 8 Zach Mercer (or Alex Dombrandt), 7 Tom Curry, 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 David Ribbans, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Jamie George, 1 Ellis Genge
Substitutions: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Val Rapava-Ruskin, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Ollie Chessum, 20 Ben Earl, 21 Alex Mitchell, 22 Marcus Smith, 23 Elliot Daly
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The article England: Five New Year’s resolutions for Steve Borthwick as the Six Nations and Rugby World Cup loom first appeared on Planetrugby.com.