Politician Borthwick's dispiriting squad reveal – Andy Goode
Henry Slade’s omission is a major surprise but after another drab performance in Cardiff and a dispiriting England Rugby World Cup squad reveal, it is Steve Borthwick’s rhetoric that needs to change more than the make-up of the team.
There were always going to be a few very tight calls and the Exeter man is a victim of the fact the likes of Elliot Daly and Joe Marchant are more able to cover back three as well as centre, but I was more struck by how a day that should be all about excitement felt like a bit of a damp squib.
I defy anyone watching the media conference that accompanied the squad announcement to feel enthused and it might seem like an obvious thing to say but surely the England head coach has to say we are going to France with the sole purpose of doing everything in our power to win the World Cup.
It doesn’t mean it is going to happen but it’s the rallying cry that every English rugby fan needs at the moment. However, instead of engaging and getting people fired up to follow the team, he danced around back-to-back questions that teed him up perfectly to do so.
We all know the current situation and the background of the past couple of years but when asked what constitutes success, the answer should simply be winning the World Cup. Anything less clearly isn’t a success.
I understand the mantra of the next game being the most important – next Saturday’s Summer Nations Series rematch with Wales at Twickenham – and it was always the way when he was at Leicester too but I just feel he has to give a bit more and understand it’s part of his job to bring people along for the ride.
Borthwick is inherently wary of the media but it felt like he thought every question was out to get him, he had a pre-prepared script with a few key points and was answering every question like a politician.
There is definitely an element of self-preservation or wanting to play things down so that supporters don’t get too excited and then see it as a crushing failure if England go out in a quarter-final or earlier, but that shouldn’t be the case. He has a five-year contract and is only just getting started.
England fans are at their lowest ebb in terms of connection with the national team and confidence in its chances and it was just crying out for the man at the helm to give them some belief and get the juices flowing.
Even in answering the questions regarding Slade’s exclusion, he just kept repeating that he had had conversations with everyone left out and told them all to be ready rather than giving much insight into the reasons behind the decision.
I think Joe Marchant was probably already inked in because of his versatility to play wing and centre but he was one of two shining lights, along with Lewis Ludlam, at the weekend and certainly played his way onto the plane if he wasn’t.
Owen Farrell just absolutely has to start at fly-half and not centre at this World Cup. It is his time and his team to lead around the field, and I feel Borthwick is going for a starting midfield of Ollie Lawrence and Manu Tuilagi.
We know how much he values size and power in the game plan he usually adopts and that pair have the ability to get England over the gain line and provide solidity in defence, but don’t underestimate Lawrence’s ball-playing ability as well.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 7, 2023
The pair have never previously started together and in an ideal world you want a cohesive centre partnership who know each other inside out, the kind England arguably haven’t really had since they won the World Cup in 2003, but that is just the position they’re in.
Alex Dombrandt is the other omission making the most headlines and I understand why because he has started every game under Borthwick, but he had a poor Six Nations and didn’t pull up any trees on Saturday so that is a selection based on form for me.
It’s no secret that there was a rift between the England head coach and Billy Vunipola, which has now thankfully been repaired, and I’m delighted to see the Premiership form of Ben Earl being rewarded in the back row as well.
As a specialist number eight, Vunipola seems from the outside to be far more of a Borthwick-type player than Dombrandt and the pair play the position completely differently so it will be interesting to see how much that change affects the way England play, but it isn’t a shock to see the Saracens man preferred.
I thought Tom Pearson might be close because he was in such dominant form at club level at the end of last season. Unfortunately, people’s lasting memory of the game in Cardiff will be of him emptied by Jac Morgan but he is a top talent and his time will come.
Elsewhere, Jack Walker being preferred to Jamie Blamire was a bit of a surprise just because he has been injured, and I’d have loved to have seen Cadan Murley included with his finishing ability but Max Malins has credit in the bank and was always likely to get the nod.
Clearly, we will see a number of changes to the team to face Wales in the second game at Twickenham this weekend but I still think we will see a few different combinations and then we have to see England’s first-choice XV start against Ireland and Fiji.
All in all, there were always going to be a few close calls but I don’t think it was as tough a squad to select as perhaps it is for Jacques Nienaber with South Africa or a few others; it just would have been good to hear a bit of straight-talking, passion and optimism to go with it.
Borthwick is as meticulous as they come and I’m sure he is saying the right things behind the scenes but what he says in the media still filters through to the players and it certainly has a big effect on how the public feel.
We have seen how the country can get behind its team in cricket and football recently and all he had to say is he is leaving no stone unturned in the quest to win the World Cup or the players can do it to get the blood pumping.
Instead, it all felt a bit deflating and like another missed opportunity to connect and create a buzz around the team and the sport. He has changed his mind on selection with the likes of Slade and Dombrandt; now Borthwick needs to rip up his script and get fans excited again.
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