Borthwick’s 6 Nations squad a sign of England’s new era

Sports

Before the last Rugby World Cup, England head coach Steve Borthwick set his team a test. It was a form of inter-squad network analysis, working out how each member of the group connected with one another. He got the idea from Burnley manager Vincent Kompany.

The survey asked the players to name which three teammates they’d look to in certain situations for guidance. It could be a mid-match situation where they needed tactical clarity, or it could be another high-pressure moment in the game. It also looked to how they connected with one another off the field. As Borthwick looked through the answers, it gave him a picture of who the leaders were, and where the balance of influence lay.

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“You’d be able to see who they turn to, who Ellis [Genge] and Maro [Itoje] would turn to,” Borthwick said. “And the number of people who connected with Jamie George is immense. His ability, across the whole squad, to understand him. I knew it was very good. That stood out to me, as being exceptional.”

Borthwick asked George to captain this team last week. Borthwick sees him as an “outstanding player,” a player with a “fantastic understanding of the game and tactically very astute,” and someone who is “brilliant with people and builds great relationships.”

Borthwick knows the pressure of being England captain well, having skippered his country 21 times. He’s touched on this experience since he took charge of England back in December 2022. It ended painfully for him, and looking back now, there are regrets. He wants George to be authentic to himself.

“I was asked this morning by somebody, ‘Have you given Jamie, any advice?’ And the one thing I said is: ‘I want you to lead as you. And many, many years from now, you will reflect and want to say you led as you.’ I’d say during my time as England captain, I don’t think I led as me. I want him to bring all his personality to it.”

George is the face and figurehead of this latest iteration of England, and there’s a revamped feel to the 36 players Borthwick has picked. It’s up to George to bring together a group where just 17 players remain from the 34 who played in the World Cup which finished three months ago. There are those injured, some in France and ineligible, some dropped through form and others who have retired or, in Owen Farrell’s case, stepped back from international rugby. So this is the first England squad for as long as some can remember without the familiarity of Ben Youngs, Courtney Lawes, Jonny May or Farrell.

They’ll meet next Wednesday in Girona, north Spain, 10 days before their first match in the Six Nations against Italy in Rome. There Borthwick faces a juggling act of integrating the seven uncapped players, those more experienced like Joe Marler, Ellis Genge and George Ford who have been carrying injuries, those recalled, and the mainstays.

This squad is Borthwick’s England 2.0. He’s already mapped out his planned trajectory for this team and group of players through to the next World Cup, and we’re getting a hint of the direction he’s heading with this squad.

It’s this regeneration of the squad which Borthwick feels will see England turn a corner and right their poor Six Nations record, which has seen them win just 50% of matches in the championship over the past six years.

“I look at it as the next step that we need to take. Clearly there are some players from the World Cup who would have been in if they hadn’t had injuries.” For the latter category read Manu Tuilagi, Bevan Rodd, Tom Curry and George Martin.

Borthwick feels English rugby is turning a corner. He has taken heart from seeing George spurn offers in France to sign a new contract with Saracens, feeling that the competitive nature of the Premiership teams in Europe has helped elevate the standard, and he also sees England growing depth in positions where before there was a lack of options — perhaps hooker, tight-head prop, No. 8, centres and on the wing. “Whilst we may not be seeing those players yet, I am well aware of who they are, where they are and where they are coming through,” Borthwick said. “I know where the depth is in certain positions.”

We’re seeing signs of that here with the seven new faces in the squad, and the recall of players from the former regime like George Furbank, Tommy Freeman, Ben Spencer, Beno Obano, Tom Pearson and Alex Coles.

The squad also included Exeter centre Henry Slade and Harlequins No. 8 Alex Dombrandt, who featured prominently for England under Borthwick before missing out on the World Cup. Both return in good form and Slade has caught Borthwick’s eye as the captain of the young Exeter side. “[Slade] had that incredible disappointment of not being selected for the World Cup, and what he has gone back to his club and he’s been tremendous. I think it’s three or four times he’s had the match-winning kick, or match-winning interception. You see [the young Exeter team] looking to him and he’s been magnificent.”

Of the new additions, winger Immanuel Feyi-Waboso is someone Borthwick has kept tabs on for a while, with the Exeter flyer picking England over Wales. “Manny and I spoke some weeks ago. Manny’s really impressed us, not just on the pitch. We can all see the power he brings, the speed he brings. He finds a way through contact when there doesn’t appear to be a way through there. He’s a real mature guy.”

He brings an exciting dimension to Borthwick’s options on the wing. Elsewhere in the backs Oscar Beard, Fraser Dingwall, Tom Roebuck and Fin Smith all get call ups. Borthwick spoke to Roebuck before the World Cup and told him to bide his time as he’d be in the mix once wingers like Jonny May stepped aside. Dingwall’s versatility across 12 and 13 has impressed while Borthwick was delighted with Beard’s reaction when he was called up. “I rang him yesterday and I think the words he used yesterday when I spoke to him were ‘dream come true,'” Borthwick said. “I think he has got the ability to play in multiple positions, that positional flexibility — I’ve spoken about it many times, that’s really important to have in a squad.”

And then there are the two new back-rows in Chandler Cunningham-Smith and Ethan Roots. Cunningham-Smith was with London Irish before they went bust, and moved to Harlequins. Borthwick has been so impressed with how those players from London Irish, Wasps and Worcester have readjusted, while Roots has been on Borthwick’s radar a while, but pressed his case when he impressed England’s team manager and World Cup-winning flanker Richard Hill. “We were in Le Touquet [England’s France training camp] and I was walking through the dining room and saw Richard Hill at his computer watching the Premiership Rugby Cup games,” Borthwick said “He pulled me over and said ‘come and watch this player for the next two minutes.’ I watched him with Hilly, and it was outstanding — the work-rate, physicality he brought to it. Hilly said to me there ‘track this guy.’ If Richard Hill tells me to track a back-row forward, I’m listening. He’s got some brain. So Ethan has now been selected.”

Borthwick’s selection is a mixture of what he’s seen with his own eyes, his coaches’ recommendations, voices around the game and stats. But when it comes down to 50/50 calls, he trusts his instinct. He’s turned to other sporting voices for advice and inspiration and is reading books about football managers. ‘Revolution’ about Ange Postecoglou has been one, with ‘Intensity’ by Liverpool’s assistant manager. He’s currently reading basketball guru Phil Jackson’s book ‘Eleven Rings.’

It all adds up to how he’s put together this squad for this Six Nations, and why he’s gone for George to lead the group. There are no guarantees he’ll be there in four year’s time in Australia when England challenge for the 2027 World Cup, but for Italy and for this Six Nations, Borthwick is optimistic this group will improve on their previous championship form.

He points to Elisabeth’s Kubler-Ross’ “change curve” as an example comparative to England. The hope is England have hit their nadir, and it’s mainly improvement from here on in. “You see companies that go into some shape of decline and at some point, a change is made,” Borthwick said. “It might be that still there is a period where you get to the root of the problems and you are making some changes that in the short term, don’t result in a positive change but you have got to go through that to get that change in the curve and get the curve going back up.

“If you keep doing the right thing every single day, and you stay true to your path and have belief in it, then you will get the results you want.

“You want that nice smooth curve going up all the time. Life is not like that. Life is one where you have ups and downs so my message to the players, and I have talked about this to the players, you have ups and downs but you have just got to keep turning up every single day, be consistent in what you do, consistent in your beliefs and your attitudes to work, put yourself in a situation where you train to win and then you will get where you want to be and that has not changed. You have to keep going every day.”

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