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FEATURE We need to talk about Steve...

We need to talk about Steve...
4 months ago

Steve Borthwick and I do not exchange Christmas cards; I don’t live next-door to him; our wives do not play tennis together. I don’t owe him money, we are not members of the same Masonic Lodge, I do not share his passion for Preston North End, nor have I wagered an unfeasible portion of my threadbare pension on him coaching England to a happy and glorious victory at the 2027 Rugby World Cup. Just so we’re clear.

But it does feel as though someone, somewhere needs to stick up for the bloke or, more accurately, try to offset the splenetic, ill-informed bilge that’s been bubbling around the England Head Coach like a burst sewer this past week. Yes, his team turned up at Murrayfield and played as though they were on a blind date but can we at least have some kind of rational discussion as to why?

Unless, of course, you prefer the knee-jerk, beer-stained, hold-my-brain-while-I-type-this perspicacity of social media, in which case – take your pick – Borthwick’s a chump; he’s out of his depth, he’s mired in the weeds, he’s got no charisma, game-plan or clue, he’s data-driven to the exclusion of all else, he’s as joyless as his gameplan and he should resign forthwith. Not for nothing is ignorance bliss.

Perhaps we could start by taking a moment to fact-check some of this dreck and drivel. The man has both a BSc and an MSc – both garnered in his spare time – so he’s not made of short planks. As a player, only Richard Wigglesworth has made more Premiership appearances; what’s more, Borthwick was capped by England 57 times, 21 of those games as skipper. So we can safely presume he knows one end of a rugby ball from the other and has some grasp what’s involved when you’re listening to a National Anthem with your boots on.

Steve Borthwick
Steve Borthwick has captained England and is widely respected by those who have worked with him (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

 

As a coach, he worked for Saracens, for Japan when they overturned South Africa at the 2015 World Cup, for England for five years under Eddie Jones – three Six Nations’ titles, one Slam – and for the Lions in 2017. As Head Coach at a – back then – lack-lustre Leicester, he reached a European Challenge Cup Final in his first season and won a Premiership title in his second. So, again, we can assume he’s got a rough idea of which part of the whistle goes in his mouth.

You want references? Hold tight. Mark McCall – no one’s idea of a mutton chop – said of him: ‘Steve manages people well, he understands different personality types …  he’s got a superb rugby brain and a way of getting the best out of people.’ Matt Stevens concurred: ‘He’s probably one of the most impressive human beings I know. He’s not an emotional guy but he is an emotionally intelligent person.’

 

On the Lions’ Tour of 2017, Rory Best said he ‘couldn’t speak highly enough’ of Steve Borthwick while the Lions’ skipper, Sam Warburton, described him as ‘a phenomenal coach’. Nick Evans spent last year’s Six Nations with him and said he was ‘brilliant.

 

Eddie Jones recalled him turning up to his interview for the Japan job with a legal pad littered with bullet-points. ‘And I thought I was supposed to be the one asking the questions,’ said Eddie afterwards. Chris Robshaw described Borthwick as ‘one of the best hands-on coaches I’ve ever worked with’ and years later, when Borthwick left England for Leicester, Jones said: ‘The players love him. He’s got an incredible work ethic and an incredible eye for detail.’

On the Lions’ Tour of 2017, Rory Best said he ‘couldn’t speak highly enough’ of Steve Borthwick while the Lions’ skipper, Sam Warburton, described him as ‘a phenomenal coach’. Nick Evans spent last year’s Six Nations with him and said he was ‘brilliant … I learned so much from Steve, the way he sees a game – albeit that we see it differently – and the way he thinks about the game. His messaging’s unbelievable.’

 

Steve Borthwick
Steve Borthwick served his dues under Eddie Jones in a successful period for England (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Imagesges)

Look, I suppose the weight of all these character witnesses will depend on your estimation of Mark, Matt, Eddie, Chris, Rory, Sam and Nick but it does appear to add up to a half-decent hallelujah. Put it this way, try to find someone Borthwick’s coached who thinks he’s ‘a chump, out of his depth, mired in the weeds …’ etc, etc. They’re not exactly thick on the ground.

No question, the man has a work ethic and an attention to detail which is ferocious/borderline weird; delete as appropriate. As a player, he famously learnt Afrikaans so he could unravel South African line-out calls. The joke when he was at Bath was that he’d count the Rice Krispies into his bowl at breakfast to make sure he got the right number of calories. Indeed, the screaming you can sometimes hear at the England Hotel at two in the morning is supposedly Borthwick’s laptop batteries begging for mercy. He does not shirk the hard yards.

 

His bedside manner is unrecognisable from his playing days. Interviewing him back then was like getting blood from a stone – ‘he could be dour and uncommunicative’, Dylan Hartley once said – but as a coach his approach feels more holistic.

 

And, clearly, his bedside manner is unrecognisable from his playing days. Interviewing him back then was like getting blood from a stone – ‘he could be dour and uncommunicative’, Dylan Hartley once said – but as a coach his approach feels more holistic. As he himself has pointed out, you don’t get dropped from the England team on your honeymoon or become a father to two young boys without (a) a clearer perspective on how to treat people respectfully or (b) a better appreciation of the importance of smelling the flowers.

His ascendancy to England’s top job was widely described as ‘a hospital pass’ and the World Cup we know about; a ludicrously lightweight draw, a warthog ugly gameplan but a semi-final against South Africa where England were nine points up with twelve minutes to go and lost by a point, the same margin by which the Springboks scuppered France and nixed New Zealand. Third place via the skimpiest of pool fixtures wasn’t exactly show-stopping but the semi-final suggested solid enough footings.

 

Felix Jones
Borthwick has recruited Felix Jones to hone the blitz defence in a notoriously difficult bedding in period (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Which brings us to Borthwick 2.0 and the Six Nations. The glaring work-on is England’s attacking game which, for a good two years, had been a case of baskets. Except that Defence Coach, Kevin Sinfield, wanted out and Felix Jones – one of the drillmasters of the World Cup-winning, Blitz-Bok defence – was due to come in, itself a sharp piece of business given his expertise and rugby IP. So it made sense to hand over the ramparts to Jones; indeed, circumstances almost dictated it.

The obvious problem being that, short-term, England’s attacking and defensive systems would be under reconstruction simultaneously, which in turn begets adjustments to the kicking game, transition play and, to some extent, the set-piece. It is not a recipe for instant clarity. Hence, they stuttered past Italy, scrapped their way past Wales but came woefully unstuck against Scotland, a match which brutally exposed the players’ lack of cohesion. Which, of course, is where we are right now.

To switch sports for just a moment, England aren’t exactly going The Full Faldo here but there are similarities. Back in 1985, Sir Nicholas – a European Order of Merit winner and four-times a Ryder Cupper – decided his swing wasn’t sufficiently pressure-proof and went to Florida with the then unheralded David Leadbetter and beat five tons of practice balls into dust. After six months, Leadbetter supposedly said: ‘Right. That’s the downswing sorted out. Let’s start on the follow through and then we’ll think about how to put it all together.’

 

Borthwick needs to re-engineer his team while still producing results – or, at the very least, credible performances – and, at the same time, changing the guard on the team-sheet as the veterans give way to the new recruits.

 

In all, it took two years in which time Faldo won nothing. Sponsors dumped him as he missed cuts in Milwaukee or finished jack-nowhere at Valderrama, all the while pounding rocks until his hands bled. Finally, in 1987, he won The Open at Muirfield and, thereafter, four other Majors in the next five years; six in all. It’s – sort of – what England are trying to do now.

Except that, of course, Borthwick’s root and branch overhaul has a vastly different context. Faldo didn’t have 82,000 people paying – what – £100 a pop to watch him chunk five-irons into a pond while he tied for 62nd at the John Deere Classic; furthermore, the England Head Coach doesn’t have two years to ingrain new, title-winning habits. On the contrary, Borthwick needs to re-engineer his team while still producing results – or, at the very least, credible performances – and, at the same time, changing the guard on the team-sheet as the veterans give way to the new recruits. And, as we’re seeing, that’s neither linear nor easy.

Did Borthwick need to head down Revolutionary Road? Long-term, he clearly felt he did and given it’s his choice, you have to assume he’s done his risk assessment. Certainly, what’s intriguing is that a man whom his critics roundly condemn as ‘risk averse’ has plumped for such a – potentially – perilous path. Less hazardous tweaks and tinkerings were open to him.

 

Steve Borthwick
Steve Borthwick has a hostile reception at Murrayfield and if results don’t pick up, no one knows how long patience will last at Twickenham (Photo by Dan Mullan/ Getty Images)

So the pertinent question is how much time does he have and how many cuts can he miss before he gets this right? In his favour he has a whopping five-year contract in his back pocket which suggests Twickenham’s thinking longer-term. He’s also Bill Sweeney’s boy so, in that sense, he has some added security, assuming the CEO isn’t lynched by the RFU Council. But it’s worth remembering what Sweeney said when he finally parted company with Eddie Jones in 2022. ‘The decision … was all about performance on the field of play,’ he said. ‘Having said that, you don’t want to hear boos at Twickenham … fans are critically important to us.’

And therein lies the danger for Steve Borthwick. He can probably afford to ship a few matches – Sweeney, interestingly, talked about ‘performance’ not results – but what he cannot do is lose Twickenham. Yet his almost intractable problem is that what he’s offering his rugby public right now is the same promise of jam and Jerusalem they were force-fed during The Decline and Fall of Eddie Jones. And right now, imagining England in the sunlit uplands is a serious leap of faith, the more so after successive Six Nations’ failures, an uninspiring World Cup and, now, the misery of Murrayfield. Patience is already threadbare.

So it’s going to require some serious salesmanship not least the realisation that shutting up shop to the – dreaded – media or offering ‘cut and paste’  sound-bites doesn’t help the connection to the customers. Certainly, the ‘I don’t care what people think of us’ mantra from the World Cup isn’t going to butter too many parsnips in the South Stand right now and Borthwick seems to have wised up on this; witness his white-hot honesty post the Scotland game: ‘I share the feelings of all the supporters – that was not good enough.’ And it wasn’t.

His other move in a more emollient direction is making Jamie George his captain. No one’s suggesting for a single second that George is simply some kind of PR choice but it’s a happy coincidence. Effortlessly engaging, highly respected and universally popular, the new skipper offers a fresh, honest public face to the organisation, someone both the players and the supporters can cheerfully buy into. On and off the pitch, his input is going to be crucial in riding out the wrinkles.

 

Unless you’re inside the dressing room or at the very least pressing an ear and a glass tumbler up against the door, you won’t have a clue what’s really going on. On the outside, all the rest of us can do is judge by what we see on the grass

 

None of this, though, will massage away too many more Murrayfields; England supporters can tell the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad, the more so if they’re paying £100 for it. Borthwick also has to manage the frustrations of his own players who’d have been even more despondent with their porridge of a performance up in Edinburgh than the supporters; wobbling plates need to be kept spinning whichever way you look. And yet there’s nothing unique about any of this. Plate-spinning is what all Head Coaches do, not least weighing up the hows and the whos. It’s why they earn the bigger bucks and end up losing their hair.

So, is he the right man? Has he bitten off more than he can chew? Are his squad with him? Is the gameplan too tight? Will it all come good? I’ve absolutely no idea. But, logically, he seems to have the credentials and a vision; he’s also put his nuts in the cheese-grater with the full-on reboot and – as one eminent coach put it – you don’t finish third in a World Cup unless your players are on board. Realistically, though? Realistically – pratfalls aside – you’d imagine he’s got until next year’s Six Nations to get all of his ducks in a rock solid row.

Ultimately, though, unless you’re inside the dressing room or at the very least pressing an ear and a glass tumbler up against the door, you won’t have a clue what’s really going on. On the outside, all the rest of us can do is judge by what we see on the grass and, for his and for England’s sake, Steve Borthwick’s team need to show Twickenham something tangible and the sooner the better. This weekend against Ireland would be a decent place to start.

Comments

18 Comments
A
Andrew 136 days ago

If I remember rightly it took SCW maybe 3 years before we could see an England identity, at a time when amateur rugby was coming to an end.
Admittedly, SCW built a fantastic team but the Northern Hemisphere teams, being amateurs, were not as strong as their professional counterparts today.
SCW knows a head coach needs time, commitment and support to find the winning combination, a combination the players he has, can work with. He had his fair amount of detractors but he came good.
So brothers, let's not forget to give SB the time and support he needs, he has certainly brought the commitment.

B
Bull Shark 137 days ago

Borthwick will need at least another season to start getting consistent results. And the patience of the English Public to allow him to get there.

He won’t last that long I reckon. And England will be back to square one 18-24 months out from the World Cup at this rate.

Had the noises about SAs poor win ratios (and style of play) for periods between 2018 and 2019, and 2019 to 2023 been taken seriously Erasmus would have been a goner. Instead the boks were backed.

Borthwick and co would do well to target specific games and outcomes. For example, a win against Ireland in this 6 Nations. They can do do it. And it would set the cat amongst the pigeons!

S
Simon 137 days ago

Sorry but Borthwick has had over a year to move the team forward. There are always excuses for the lacklustre performances, with it being down to his predecessors etc etc.

Unlike many I believe he got lucky with during the World Cup with the likes of Curry in the Fiji game. Frankly it was papering over the cracks of an already shambolic season.

2024 has continued in the same vain, poor performances against Italy, Wales and Scotland. Ireland will be a lose, may be England will be as Borthwick likes to put it difficult to beat. Not exactly an inspiring mindset for fans and probably not for players.

France will most likely put one over us in Paris for us to finish the Six Nations on a 2 from 5 ratio again.

So roll on the summer tour, Japan in Tokyo, not an easy place to go when you’re far from firing on all cylinders. Yet I’d expect a win, but it will be hard fought against a side that plays at a pace that is alien to England.

Then onto New Zealand for a series whitewash by the All Blacks, with a high probability of 50 plus points on us in each game.

So England return in tatters reputations further damaged and a short break before the autumn internationals. Lucky for England they have Japan again a fourth win of 2024 and the last. Australia under Joe likely to beat us, then the All Blacks smash us at home followed by the Boks.

Look back at Leicester, the style worked for a while leading them to the championship. Following season everybody had a handle on the Borthwick style and Leicester were in a bad place until he left. They managed some self respect by the end of the season but ultimately even Wigglesworth style was not able to cut it.

England finish 2024 on 4 from 12. Why because Borthwick’s style and understanding of the game is not for the International game. His reliance on has been players is his undoing along with playing players out of position and his monumental failure to inspire a squad.

People say he needs time, rubbish. A half decent coach should be able to inspire players to play with freedom and self expression in a short space of time.

Mapletoft has managed it with the Under 20’s and England A were able to show a style that the senior team can only dream of.

So does the RFU stick with Borthwick and Co and we end up with a 4 from 12 season then fire him and certainly do not compensate him for two years of the worst rugby England has played.

Or cut him loose after the Six Nations and look at someone like O’Gara or even Sir Steve Hansen. Both would call time on several players careers and rightly so. Paving the way for many of Englands brightest talent to been given the time to develop and deliver England performances and wins that can fill HQ and others because people and teams want to see them play against their teams.

I believe change is needed and that Borthwick and Co are clubs coaches and nothing more. The arguments about numbers of games played by them is not valid. Martin Johnson an England legend and hero was just not cut out to be a coach. Being a great player is no guarantee of being a great coach. Sometimes it’s the average player that makes the great coach.

Time for Borthwick to go, he is just one aspect of why English rugby is going to the dogs. The RFU needs a clear out as well, with the pensioners retired with no benefits on departure.

M
Michael 137 days ago

An interesting and non emotional article, thank you. Lets be honest we are getting what we expected from Borthwick and its 100 times better than the nasty egotistical and destructive Jones approach which has put English rugby back 10 years. The real problem now however is the current England team are playing a style of rugby that is 4-5 yrs out of date and simply not competitive. I regularly watch the english players play well for their clubs but once they put an England shirt on they are lacking confidence and are frankly clueless. Wave after wave of slow forwards taking contact with ruck speed that is just too pedestrian to worry even the weakest of 6 Nations defences, amplified by the half backs kicking the ball away time after time. That together with a non sensical selection approach is why in my opinion England are now very much tier two in the 6 Nations with Wales and Italy and going backwards rather than forwards. For me its not just ‘Boringwick’ that is at fault its the RFU execs who hired and extended Jones contract and then compounded the matter by hiring a very limited international coach in Borthwick. If you care to also look at two other parts of the FU execs domain, professional and grass roots rugby, they are also in a complete mess with falling player numbers and a host of big issues that need sorting just as much as the national team. With the CEO of the RFU earning £700k for this complete failure! So by all means critique Borthwick but perhaps you should also look at the idiots that appointed him and are allowing our game to fail so badly.

C
Colin 137 days ago

The writer ignores the player selection issue of both Jones and Borthwick and the lack of attack play with OF or GF as 10, wingers with no pace or footwork (a la Watson), bashers instead of fast feet backs and forwards who take the ball static and go to ground very quickly. Rugby is not brain surgery but it does need the best qualities of players recognised for international standard.

G
Grahame 137 days ago

I firmly believe everyone that wanted change, need to start defending Borthwick. He has done exactly what is needed! Pre Borthwick, our nbacks were awful the ball never got passed passed Farrell and we kicked everything away, its no wonder our attack is years behind teams like FIJI and the top 3 teams. Our forwards didn’t pass nor run with the ball and lacked power and pace. Now the team is revamped, were trying things never thought possible and were making mistakes that will soon be a thing of the past. 22 turnovers against Scotland, 3 which resulted in tries. Imagine if those turnovers did not happen, our forwards looked powerful and direct and edged the forward contest, Scotland would have only scored pens and we would have scored try after try. Yes this is a Maybe. but 22 turnovers however you put it is 22 attempts to do something. If we would have won, i wonder what the press would be saying?
GIve him time… it will work

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Nick 137 days ago

Two thoughts, the plaudits for Borthwick across the game are typically for his character and specific coaching role rather than vision. Is he one job too senior. Next, what is being served up currently is tedious. Appreciate wins are important, but to me, the spectacle needs to be entertaining. It is not and has not been for 4 years.

h
h 137 days ago

england under eddie jones were frightening. they won 18 tests in a row for christ sakes. eddie jones was peak england. never forget. 😂

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Cameron 138 days ago

Remember what life was like before Eddie Jones? Welcome to your future England fans.

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Flankly 138 days ago

It’s pretty simple. Consistently limit your opponents to less than 17 points and you have the makings of sustained success. Borthwick and Jones should ignore the chatter about attacking magic until they have this figured out.

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