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FEATURE 'Lighten up and be a man of influence' - the festive issues facing Steve Borthwick

'Lighten up and be a man of influence' - the festive issues facing Steve Borthwick
6 months ago

As a new year, new Six Nations campaign, and new World Cup cycle draw near, what must Steve Borthwick address?

The England coach can reflect on a successful World Cup in France, but has plenty to ponder as he ends his first year as head coach.  

1. Sort the border turf wars with France

Henry Arundell is a loss to the international arena. As is Dave Ribbans. And Joe Marchant. The RFU needs to address its emigration problem. The union needs to introduce some slack into its policy of banning those who have headed across the Channel for riches and also for an experience.

Arundell will be a better player for his time at Racing 92. So too Marchant across the city at Stade Francais. Why deprive your Test team of those benefits? Why not make best use of the situation as the South Africans have done down the years? Why not factor in flexibility as the New Zealanders have done by granting players a sabbatical? There are so many ways to deal with the situation if only there were a will to do so and not exclude all the English talent playing in the Top 14.

There are signs the RFU is getting its act together by liaising with Premiership clubs in putting together hybrid contracts for various elite players such as Jamie George or Maro Itoje to prevent them from being tempted overseas. That’s a start. But it’s not too late to bring the likes of Arundell back into the fold.

2. Back Marcus Smith

In an ideal world, Owen Farrell would be heading into England camp in the New Year, boots laced and ready for international action. But the dimwits and their social media poison have put paid to that. Farrell is the first high-profile England player to take such a break. He won’t be the last.

One person’s difficulty is another’s opportunity. Into that coveted No 10 shirt should step Marcus Smith. There are others in the frame, of course, and George Ford has always been a high-class contender even if his old mucker, Farrell, were still about. But it’s time to really find out if Smith can cut the mustard at Test level. He’s served his apprenticeship, shown he has the talent and the nerve to mix it with the best.

There are several caveats to declaring him as a shoo-in for the position. There is much he still has to prove in the unforgiving, high-octane world of international footie – the crushing lack of time, the physical battering, the need for thrust-and-parry rather than simple all-out attack, the zero-margin-for-error reality of the kicking game.

England need to learn whether Smith can do the business and match the Finn Russells of this world at that rarified level. Let’s see the evidence for and against. Give Smith an extended run in the Six Nations.

3. Do I need a captain?

Yes, you do. It would be easy to view Farrell’s absence as a short-term problem and simply make do and mend. After all, the Saracens playmaker might have been crocked and missed the tournament with a routine injury. It would be foolish to clutch at such straws. Farrell might never return. It was a monumental shock that he did decide to step away. He might quite like his new-found freedom, away from ruinous levels of stress and intrusion.

England have some obvious lieutenants to put forward for promotion be it Ellis Genge, Jamie George, Maro Itoje or whoever. Borthwick has to settle on his man and back him to the hilt. The role is crucial. Captaincy is not to be done by committee. Leinster’s strategy of co-captaincy with James Ryan and Garry Ringrose has already hit the buffers. Leadership groups are all very well for dividing the load behind closed doors. But, even though the modern age has been bedevilled by Rassie Erasmus-style waterboys or traffic light means of communication or, worse, instruction, the presence of a captain in the thick of the action is still a million times more important than any two-bit message which might have come from the sidelines.

Still think captaincy is no more than a figurehead role? Well, name a World Cup-winning side without a great captain at the helm. There isn’t one.

 4. Be a man of influence

Of course there is a danger of being sidetracked, of considering yourself a jack-of-all-trades, a rugby statesman with an all-court brief rather than merely a coach at the coalface getting his hands dirty. Borthwick is squarely in the last category but he owes it to himself as well as the game to broaden his horizons.

Eddie Jones never deigned to build deep and meaningful relations with the clubs let alone think to pass comment on the many wider issues in the sport. His tenure was a wasted opportunity on so many levels. His predecessor, Stuart Lancaster, embarked on a significant rebuild after the World Cup meltdown of 2011 but even he admitted he got too caught up in the politics of the job, the media-messaging and all manner of PR initiatives so that he lost sight of a head coach’s primary responsibility which is to make sure England deliver on the field.

There is a middle ground and wouldn’t it be wonderful if Borthwick could use his influence to just pass comment on how splendid it would be if the classic Cardiff-Bath Champions Cup game last Saturday could rekindle meaningful debate as to more cross-border fixtures in the future. And, as for the Six Nations ever leaving terrestrial television, well, that would set the sport back years. Steve, the platform is yours. Use it well. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind.

5. Lighten up

Perish the thought Borthwick should turn into a gag-cracking Michael McIntyre or, worse, Eddie Jones, but there is a need for more joy and freedom of spirit in the English game. Some of this is to do with mood music, admittedly a potentially tricky area given it enables PR spin doctors, usually with ghastly results.

But even so, the atmosphere emanating from the England camp during the Rugby World Cup was downbeat and deflating. That outlook was reflective of the way England played – turgid, functional and limited. There is nothing wrong in having a set game plan which revolves around playing the percentages if it makes best use of the players at a coach’s disposal. But England have more to offer than that. As the Springboks have proven in the last two World Cups it is possible to be hard-edged buggers as well as devilish attackers, to be tight-knit but open. Conservatism is Borthwick’s natural suit. It’s time for him to loosen up and time for England to throw off those shackles.


Colin 185 days ago

Borthwick picked both Youngs and Vunipols for the RWC even though they had been poor for well over 5 years. Smith needs a scrum half with a quick pass, a ruck that is equally fast and a 12 who will be on his shoulder. So no Tuilagi. The England squad and tactics need a complete overhaul and on his recent past selections Borthwick seems incapable of this.

john 185 days ago

The most important thing Borthwick has to do is give us a england team that can compete with the best and win .Eddie had that team but could not keep it going .

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