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FEATURE Ben Kay: 'I genuinely think it’s a really exciting time to be an England fan'

Ben Kay: 'I genuinely think it’s a really exciting time to be an England fan'
4 months ago

This 2024 tournament marks a big changing of the guard for English rugby, so I can understand Steve Borthwick’s England squad selection. With precious little preparation time, settled international sides tend to be based on a collective of individuals playing well for their clubs.

The proof in the pudding for Test players is not just if they’re doing well in the Premiership but if they can mix it in high pressure games in Europe. If you look at the squad, there’s contingents from Northampton (6), Bath (5) and Harlequins (4). They are the form sides this season, who have shown they can mix it with the best; Bath going to Toulouse, Saints beating Munster at Thomond Park. That will not have gone unnoticed.

Post the 2019 World Cup final, most pundits thought the age-profile of that squad meant they would improve, learn from their mistakes and have another shot at glory. What we now know is they’d peaked as a side and started dropping off. The fulcrum of that squad was Saracens-based and many would argue that core is on the wane.

Approaching the last World Cup, Ireland and France were the two best teams in the world. Ireland were dominated by Leinster players and France had a mix of La Rochelle’s power and Toulouse’s backline sorcery. You’d argue the all-conquering Crusaders set the tone for the All Blacks as well. What I’m trying to say is that any Test coach needs a foundation to build upon.

Steve Borthwick
Steve Borthwick has spent time in Girona honing his squad before heading to Rome (Photo by David Ramos/ Getty Images)

This is where England’s system hampers cohesiveness. They are weakened because they have less control in how the clubs utilise England players and more clubs to filter into the national set-up. How do you decide on a game-plan when you have no input during the domestic season? You’re forced to think, which of those Premiership teams is going to help me get up to speed fastest and give me the best opportunity to implement the gameplan I want to play.

What we really want to see – and Jamie George has already talked about it – is the reconnecting of the relationship between the players and fans. Obviously Borthwick is not going to be replicating Harlequins’ attack but that is the area that needs most improvement. At the World Cup, you thought, ‘if England stay in the fight, they could just nick it’. You were never thinking, ‘if England are 40m out, they could contrive a piece of magic here and score’, whereas with the All Blacks, France or Ireland, there would be some anticipation of  magic being created. Fans don’t expect that every single scrum, but four or five times a match, shouldn’t be too much to ask Then you’ll get England fans thinking, ‘I’m really buying into this side and what they’re trying to do’. Some subtle tweaks and the whole narrative changes.

Borthwick has shown his trademark pragmatism and decided to give the old heads one more Six Nations campaign. He doesn’t want some young kids getting hoofed at the scrum and it crushing their confidence

That said, I genuinely think it’s a really exciting time to be an England fan. We know well before Australia in 2027, there is going to be a change in personnel. After the World Cup, we probably thought we’d seen the last of Danny Care, Dan Cole and Joe Marler on a Test stage, but Borthwick has shown his trademark pragmatism and decided to give the old heads one more Six Nations campaign. He doesn’t want some young kids getting hoofed at the scrum and it crushing their confidence, which could set them back years. Those older boys will be invaluable with over 300 caps missing in the shape of Courtney Lawes, Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs. I’d expect Maro Itoje to be around for 2027 and even Jamie George who will be 36 in Australia but apart from that, it could be a completely new side.

So how much change does Borthwick want to make in this Six Nations? That’s the big question. England heading to Rome isn’t the formality many think it is. They’re expecting a sell-out, Benetton are second in the URC and their U20 boys have done very well in recent years. Gonzalo Quesada has cut a more pragmatic tone and his players will want to impress – England will definitely been seen as a potential big scalp.

Henry Slade
Henry Spade returns to the England line-up after his World Cup omission (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Put me on the spot and I’d say France first, Ireland second, England third, Scotland fourth, Wales fifth and Italy last, but if Wales beat Scotland then that could all change.

As for the evolving England squad, let’s break down the units…

Back-three

George Furbank offers a real point of difference to Freddie Steward who is very safe pair of hands and breaks the line with his size. He’s creative, a beautiful footballer and has a sharp rugby brain. I hope he gets some minutes during the tournament. On the flanks, I like a balance. One big wing and one smaller wing. A plus size wing in the shape of Ben Cohen or George North would be ideal and Will Muir fits that profile. Tommy Freeman has serious gas, footwork and he works so hard and pops up all over the field, a bit like Jack Nowell. Immanuel Feyi-Waboso is an interesting case. He’s extremely athletic – I saw a stat saying he makes the most metres per carry in the Premiership – and whenever you speak to Rob Baxter, his only regret is he doesn’t get the ball to him enough. Feyi-Waboso is a bit like Jason Robinson, in that he keeps you on your toes. You never know what he’s going to do. Unpredictability is priceless, and Daly’s inclusion allow him to sneak into the 23.

Midfield

Ollie Lawrence would have walked into the side with his muscular, power running. With him out injured, Fraser Dingwall has been entrusted to do a job at inside-centre, with Slade outside him. It may work for Italy but you’d say in future they could well be vying for the same shirt. Dingwall has been superb for years and Franklin’s Gardens. He’s good on both sides of the ball, makes good decisions and he’s a natural leader. Sladey lost his way for England in the last few years but he’s been superb for Exeter Chiefs and has been coming up with some clutch moments. Borthers knows what he can do and he deserves another shot.

Fraser Dingwall
Fraser Dingwall’s consistency for Northampton has finally seen him making his England debut at 24 (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Half-back

With Marcus Smith injured, you can see Borthwick has fallen back on the experienced George Ford. It’s such a shame for Marcus. I love him as a player. I love watching him, he is absolutely phenomenal, but you’re left with this nagging doubt over whether he matches Steve Borthwick’s style of play in how he believes Test rugby should be played. Marcus’ unique skillset actually makes him very difficult to replace because you have to change your entire gameplan when he’s taken out of the equation. So much of playing at Test level is confidence, as long as you play the way Steve Borthwick wants. That brings us to Fin Smith. Only a few years ago, Dan Biggar was consoling him, walking off the pitch for Worcester but that was the night Saints knew they had a ready-made replacement for Biggar, who disappeared off to Toulon. Fin’s very mature for his age. He’s a smart game manager, a gifted footballer, a creator and he has a whip-smart passing game. In short, a real all-rounder. I’d really like to see him get a chance to develop. At 9, I don’t worry. In Alex Mitchell, Danny Care and Ben Spencer, you have three lads who are playing out of their skin and offer differing skillsets.

Back five

George Martin would have been involved in the back five but misses out through injury. England’s dual conundrums are how to replace the irreplaceable in Courtney Lawes and who can give them Billy Vunipola’s gainline? If Ben Earl is a big carrier in the middle of the park, they’ll want a big six who can jump at the tail. They’ve gone for Ethan Roots, who at 26, is near the complete package, but 20-year-old Cunningham South could be the longer-term option for Courtney. He reminds me of Courts when he was younger. Underhill comes in at openside, and we know he’ll leave defenders gasping for air with his defence but I’d love to see Ben Curry given a chance in this tournament. I have to mention one more player; Alfie Barbeary. He’s got x-factor. He wasn’t picked because they knew he’d get a ban but he plays with a smile on his face and makes yardage where he has no right to, like Jasper Wiese for the Boks. I think he has massive future ahead of him.

Alfie Barbeary
Alfie Barbeary is not in the England squad due to disciplinary reasons but has the x-factor to make a big impression with England (Photo by Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images)

Front-row

There’s a vacancy at loosehead with Mako retiring. Your attacking front-rower is Ellis Genge but they’ve gone with Marler, who isn’t in the same mould, for set-piece solidity. At tighthead Will Stuart, 27, should be the optimum age to take over from Dan Cole who can’t go on forever. These are questions that need answering over the next seven weeks and we’ll also find out if Theo Dan can put pressure on Jamie George, who is clearly way ahead of his rivals at hooker.

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