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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'No team wins without a sense of itself. No team prospers without a good bit of fight in it.'

Mick Cleary: 'No team wins without a sense of itself. No team prospers without a good bit of fight in it.'
6 months ago

Check calendar. 2024. Just. Few weeks to go to the start of the 2024 Six Nations Championship. Yes, that’s the 2024 tournament. Prestigious. Intense. Cherished. Enduring. And four glorious, edge-of-seat editions of it to come before the 2027 Rugby World Cup. Four championships. Three complete summer tours. Three autumn series. Or whatever format eventuates. That’s a lot of rugby.

If there is one New Year’s resolution we can all surely agree on is that we don’t mention – ssshh, don’t say it – that next global event in Australia until a decent period has elapsed since the last one in France, the one that went on so long it spanned three seasons of weather. International rugby ought to be about the here and now. Simple.

Steve Borthwick was doing well enough at his start-of-year press conference until the inevitable questions came his way as to how he sees the make-up of his squad moving forward, especially since the retirement of stalwarts such as Ben Youngs and Courtney Lawes. Runners and riders were mentioned. The next generation. The correct answer would have been to state that all that mattered was winning England’s next game which is against Italy in Rome on February 3. And then at home to Wales the following week. Ditto the trip to Murrayfield thereafter. Home to Ireland. Finish off with a little tester against France in Lyon in mid-March. Win that lot and everything else will take care of itself.

Selection conundrums. Captaincy. Front-row injuries. Midfield combinations. Future possibilities. Momentum. Confidence. Belief. Why, England might even rise up that most semi-useless of things, the World Rugby rankings. That’s what he could have said. The plain truth of the matter.

Robbie Henshaw
Steve Borthwick claimed he inherited a broken England from Eddie Jones (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Borthwick knows the reality of the position he occupies. How can he not? 12 months ago, in the wake of Eddie Jones’ departure, he acknowledged that England were something of a basket case on the international stage, ‘not good at a anything.’ Things hadn’t improved as the World Cup in France came into view. Only three wins in their previous nine tests under Borthwick. 27 tackles missed during an unprecedented loss to Fiji. And so on. Misery all around.

And now? A glimmer of hope for what lies ahead. From rubble and ruins something has started to take shape. You would need Alastair Campbell levels of spin to portray England’s World Cup campaign as a triumph but it was commendable enough given the sombre mood music of the build-up. And the very best of it is that no-one is lauding their bronze-medal bauble with any sort of triumphalist, stick-that-where-the-sun-don’t-shine rhetoric to their critics, of whom there were many. Indeed, the wise old birds in that England set-up, a Joe Marler or George Ford, have spent these intervening weeks with a sense of regret and pondering just how they didn’t manage to get across the line against South Africa in the semi-final. The Springboks have been feted the length and breadth of the country while England have to work out where they really are in the grand scheme of things.

The real heart of England’s business lies in where they were, where they are now and where they might get to.

Borthwick, to be fair, is not a man to get swept along on a tide of false emotion. He is so down-to-earth as to be  subterranean. Yes, he did get drawn into passing comment on novice thrusters such as Exeter trio of wing, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso. No.8, Greg Fisilau and Kiwi-nurtured back-rower, Ethan Roots, but that’s the nature of the media business. You get asked a question, you give a response and suddenly it’s the headline item. Fair enough. The tug-of-war over dual-qualified Feyi-Waboso could get lively enough over the next ten days with Warren Gatland pulling on the gloves as only he can. But whichever way that tussle goes, it’s a sideshow.

The real heart of England’s business lies in where they were, where they are now and where they might get to. There were a lot of wise words from Borthwick, stressing the need for’ balance’ when weighing up that thing on the four year horizon in Oz and recognising that England have done little more so far than lay the first level of bricks as they look to build something of substance.

George Martin
After a year of mediocrity, England showed mettle against Argentina that Steve Borthwick can build on (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

No team wins without a sense of itself. No team prospers without a good bit of fight in it. Grit. Plenty of guts. A commitment to each other, even above a commitment to the national cause. England found all that in France. From somewhere. But it’s there now. They’ve stopped the rot of losing. Small mercies you might argue. And, boy, it hasn’t been easy on the eye at times but victory is all that matters.

There was another admirable comment from Borthwick as regards the wretched state of affairs that caused Owen Farrell to step away from test rugby. For Farrell, read also officials Wayne Barnes and Tom Foley, all of whom have been affected by the cesspit that is social media.

Given the uncertain state of Ellis Genge’s hamstring, Jamie George looks to be the best bet: respected, selfless, savvy and battle-hardened.

Rugby has long had false claim on the moral high ground, the supposed gentleman’s code with its assumed pomposity and these latest incidents only serve to highlight that it can be as grubby and unwholesome as any sport. If there is one wish for 2024 it would be to hear Owen Farrell’s name read out at Twickenham on Feb 10 prior to kick-off against Wales and for it to be greeted with a round of applause. That’s all. It might just flush a bit of clean water through the sewer.

Farrell’s absence has opened up a captaincy vacancy. Farrell was a strong leader in so many ways, not the least of which involved encouraging others to assert themselves. It was the same sort of shared responsibility that characterised Martin Johnson’s World Cup-winning side of 2003. Borthwick does not need to agonise too long over his decision. There are too many injury doubts in the equation for him at this stage to get too tangled up as to whether the appointment is for the long or the sort-term. The opening couple of weekends will do for now and if that goes well, it takes care of itself.

Given the uncertain state of Ellis Genge’s hamstring, Jamie George looks to be the best bet: respected, selfless, savvy and battle-hardened.

Jamie George
Jamie George could be the perfect man to take the captain’s armband off Owen Farrell (Photo Julian Finney – Getty Images)

There are still a few rounds of action to survive for all the contenders. Borthwick has particular injury issues at loosehead prop and midfield. England should expect no sympathy. They have deeper resources than most. I’d like to see Henry Slade back in the fold, Tommy Freeman in there somewhere too. And if Dan Cole is still considered the best tighthead at 36, then in he goes.

There is also  a new coaching staff to integrate. We might all fall to our knees and pray that England give it a lash, that attack coach, Richard Wigglesworth adds options to the team’s repertoire, draws on the experience of Felix Jones and Andrew Strawbridge to bring variety and potency to England’s game.

But if England finish the 2024 Six Nations championship in credit then those foundations will have had another layer added to them. That’s enough for now. The future will take care of itself.


Colin 191 days ago

Oh dear, I usually agree with Mick Clearly but this piece is full of errors concerning England rugby. Firstly Borthwick needs to get selection right, something he has failed to do so far. No Dan Coles should not be in the squad and OF for a “warrior leader” disappeared in many matches and over the last 5 years England have played awful rugby and lost many, many matches with OF at 10.
Without correct selection England will go nowhere.

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