'A big name will miss out; I hope it’s not Ben Earl' – Austin Healey
Monday is D-day for Steve Borthwick’s wannabe England players. Having auditioned 61 options over the course of the summer and whittled that tally down to 43 last week (41 active players and two in injury rehab), the head coach will confirm at 10am on Monday his chosen 33 for the upcoming Rugby World Cup in France.
It’s an ordeal Austin Healey has experienced on both sides. In 1999, Clive Woodward included him in the squad of 30 and he started four games at the finals, three on the wing and another at scrum-half in a run to the quarter-finals.
Four years later, though, his versatility counted for naught. He picked up a serious injury, rushed back to start a warm-up against France in Marseille four months later, and then came the deflating phone call telling him he wouldn’t be part of the 30 that went on to win the World Cup in Australia. Ouch!
“I think I coped with it quite well,” suggested Healey to RugbyPass, recalling his rejection 20 years ago. “Clive phoned and said, ‘I’m not taking you’. I said, ‘Well, you have obviously lost your marbles, good luck’. I didn’t ask for an explanation. We had this sort of rule there that you didn’t ask, but I sort of knew.
“I’d snapped my ACL in April that year and I played in August, which was probably a mistake and now I have got a metal knee off the back of it, so trying to get into that World Cup squad really deteriorated my knee and in hindsight, I should have just taken it on the chin and moved on.”
The class of 2023 England rejections will soon be known. Healey is expecting a headline-grabbing omission. “There will be a big name that misses out. I hope it’s not Ben Earl, but I have got a feeling it might be.
“He has been arguably our best back-rower this year but if Billy (Vunipola) is finding form and holds the eight shirt, are you going to drop (Tom) Curry for Earl; does new cap (Tom) Pearson, who was a standout player (last season) and has got a little X-factor about him, get in? Out wide, does (Cadan) Murley make it scoring all those tries or not make it? There are a lot of big decisions.”
Borthwick went into conclave with his selectors overnight on Saturday after the warm-up match in Cardiff to make his final choice, but he signposted on Thursday that he would take three out-halves, explaining: “You need to be protected and have the right amount of depth in those specialist positions… In those key positions you need to have depth, three players who can play in that position.”
That sounds like one too many for Healey. “Do you take three fly-halves; do you take (George) Ford, (Owen) Farrell and (Marcus) Smith? I don’t think you can. I don’t think you have got space because if you do, you are going to have to sacrifice somebody else who is probably going to play. If one of Ford and Farrell or Farrell and Smith get injured, you can bring the other guy across the Channel in 35 minutes.
“For me the make-up of it, you have to take three scrum-halves which Eddie (Jones) never did which I always thought was a massive mistake because if you lose your first-choice scrum-half and you have to drop him out of the squad, you can’t bring him back, so really, really difficult decisions for Borthwick.
“I’m pretty sure he is close. The game on Saturday might fill three or four spots maximum but apart from that he probably had the squad in his head already and you can only injure your way out or play your way out of that squad.”
As a multi-title-winning ex-Leicester player, Healey was delighted to see Borthwick revive the relegation-threatened Tigers and transform them into 2022 Gallagher Premiership champions for the first time since 2014. That success was the crucial step in putting the coach in a position to replace Jones as the England boss when the vacancy arose last December.
Borthwick has since taken a busload of Leicester assistants with him to work at Test level, but Healey doesn’t view the head coach as a Tigers man. Instead, he refers to him and assistant Richard Wigglesworth as Saracens people and the way they magicked up that league final success last 14 months ago against their old club fills him with optimism that England can shrug off frustrating Guinness Six Nations inconsistencies and enjoy a positive World Cup.
"Any lad that can survive a weekend with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Las Vegas deserves to be picked…"
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“I always thought of both Wigglesworth and Borthwick as Saracens because they were there for so long and they carried the Saracens DNA into Leicester. Those two DNAs mixed a little and then eventually delivered what was a remarkable victory – and what actually fills me with the most confidence about England is that game, Leicester-Saracens in the final.
“Wigglesworth and Borthwick manufactured a new style of play within a week to beat a side that should have beaten them and England, if they are going to do well at this World Cup, have that flexibility in place to change from week to week.
“So if they are playing Argentina and then play Japan, they can change the flow and control of the game. Wigglesworth/Borthwick will certainly be able to deliver and they have got the flexibility in selection. I can see them doing well, but I don’t just want to talk about England – there are loads of other sides I’m really looking forward to seeing play.
“Someone said to me there are only four sides that can win [New Zealand, France, Ireland or South Africa from Pool A and B]. I completely disagree with that. How the sides are balanced for the quarter-finals, any one of those eight sides – and I include Wales in that – could win the World Cup.”
Why? “Because if you have got France versus South Africa in one quarter-final, are you telling me whoever wins that is going to have the physicality to carry it on for two more weeks? I’d be amazed if they do. That side of the draw is so difficult. Whoever comes out of it should be physically shot by the time they get to the final.”
Healey will only fleetingly be at the finals, returning to Marseille two decades after his audition versus opposing scrum-half Fabien Galthie wasn’t enough to sway Woodward into bringing him down under for the World Cup. “I have bought an open-top bus with three friends. We are doing it up with a couple of bars and driving it from Nice to Marseille.
“I’m there for three days, so if anybody wants to buy an open-top bus and is in Marseille just after the quarter-finals weekend, it’s for sale, so feel free to make a bid. It has a cocktail bar and a big fridge bar downstairs and a boardroom that will be built in the back,” he enthused, adding: “We have got a great driver. He is called Powell, Andy Powell!”
This mid-October quarter-finals adventure on the French Riviera will clash with the opening weekend of the 2023/24 Premiership. The league in England was bashed from pillar to post for three of last season’s original participants going bust, turning a 13-strong competition into a 10-team event.
The demise of Worcester, Wasps and London Irish fed into a narrative that rugby is damaged, but Healey refuses to dwell on doom and gloom. In his TV pundit eyes, what materialised on the pitch was electric and he has nothing but optimism the product will again entertain royally with live coverage now on TNT Sports, the broadcaster that bought BT Sport.
“I just look at the good stuff, really, the things that you can control. That is buying a ticket, heading to a stadium and being entertained by unbelievable skill. If you start worrying about all the other stuff off the field, you get bogged down. We have to be more positive. We are involved with a sport we all love and it’s a great sport; I don’t think the skill levels have ever been better.”
Why doesn’t this entertainment dominate the chatter then? “The media have a big part to play because I would read some papers and it would be either this club has got no money, that club has got no money, a head injury to this player, what are we going to do about concussion, player welfare, and they didn’t write about the magic I saw every single week,” said Healey, looking back on 2022/23.
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“There was arguably a classical game every single weekend. Sides coming back from 24, 27, 31 points down at half-time and just scoring with the last play of the game, crossfield kicks, driving mauls, the skill levels were just insane. Some of the offloads we saw: that Murley finish when he ran down the touchline with four players chasing and he was airborne, it was like he was floating. You don’t see that on a normal rugby field.
“The Gallagher Premiership has got the best tournament in the world for entertainment, and then the European tournament has got after internationals the best tournament for intensity and the final last year [Leinster versus La Rochelle] was just incredible… the lengths players will go to to win a rugby match, that is the reason why I still do it [TV punditry].
“I have been doing this for quite a long time now. People are, ‘Do you not get bored giving up your weekends?’ No! How would I get bored? I get to watch some of the best rugby matches you will ever see. My favourite moment last year was the European final. At the start you saw arguably the best 20 minutes of rugby I have ever seen by any side anywhere in the world in any era ever from Leinster.
“But there was a sense – and Ben Kay said it in commentary – that La Rochelle were just looking for something to put their hats on and it became the scrum. They just got a little edge and then a little more edge. It was like they were chipping off a big block of ice trying to fit it into a small glass and Leinster suddenly became a normal side from the side of superhumans that played the first 20 minutes.
“That was just an unbelievable game of rugby. And just seeing (Will) Skelton run around for 80 minutes, it’s like watching Jack in Jack in the Beanstalk come down his beanstalk, do the London marathon, then climb back up his beanstalk and do the marathon when he gets back up to his cloud. The guy for me is the best player in the world and there is a lot to choose from at the minute. (Levani) Botia would be up there in second place.”
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With the recently retired Stuart Hogg taking up the TNT Sports mic next season, Healey can’t wait to be in the thick of it again, describing the competitiveness with fellow pundits as similar to what he felt in his playing days.
“Stuart said he is looking forward to not getting beaten up every week and I said, ‘You obviously haven’t been on social media as a commentator’, so he has a lot to look forward to from that point of view, and we have got Emily (Scarratt) as well who for my money is the best female rugby player ever seen. I’m looking forward to seeing what they bring.
“It also makes me think, ‘I have got to start upping my game to make sure I still get to commentate on the finals’ because I have got Brian (O’Driscoll) who has picked it up unbelievably well. His analysis, how fast he picks things up, it’s a skill. Ugo (Monye) is doing it as well – he is going to go more into presenting – and now I have got two other people who effectively want my job in finals. You genuinely accept it [the competition]. It’s like being back in the playing days.”
TNT Sports held their official launch last Wednesday in the London Docklands, but Healey sussed out his new bosses in June, rendezvousing with them at the French Open. The ex-England international liked the cut of their jib and is confident they have the ambition to take TV rugby to a new level.
“I went to Roland Garros to watch the tennis, met my bosses and it was good to see that two Australians had very similar thoughts on sport as an English rugby player. So it was great, really enjoyed meeting them. I also got to meet John McEnroe as he works in the tennis commentary team for Eurosport,” cheered Healey before explaining some innovations he wants to see.
“I’ve always said I want to put a camera on the halfway line, on the centre spot in the ground, and then accidentally pay the fly-half to kick the ball out on the full from the first kick-off so you can see inside the scrum. I would love to be able to do that.
“I’d like to hear from the directors of rugby, not the head of fitness or scrum coach or somebody who carries out the tee during a match. And I’d like to see the heart rates, so I’d like to see GPS data from the players so people can see what G-force has just been in a tackle, what their heart rate was when they ran the last hundred yards, how fast they were running.
“All this technology exists and I’m very hopeful over the course of this season and seasons to come the fans will get to see it because a lot of people want to know how big is a G-force when Billy Vunipola hits you in a tackle because I think it’s pretty high – it’s about a Mini hitting you at 30 miles an hour.”
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