Time is short. England’s next game is on 4 February against Scotland and, once Christmas and new year are over, the Six Nations will come lurching around the corner. Between now and the England squad coming together there are four tough weekends of Heineken Cup rugby and three Premiership rounds to be negotiated. Winter break? Not a chance.
Haggling with Leicester over compensation payments for Steve Borthwick and his assistants, therefore, cannot drag on indefinitely. At least Borthwick has a little experience of standing starts with the British & Irish Lions. He has also coached – and in some cases played with – a sizeable proportion of the squad. It does not make the job easier but it helps with the initial sifting process. Borthwick’s current head coach role with Leicester also gives him a working knowledge of almost every player in England.
Do not expect him to rip everything up on day one: that is not the methodical Borthwick’s style. What he will be looking for is one or two unflashy players capable of making the collective tighter: the Leicester centre Dan Kelly might be one and his versatile fellow Tiger Ollie Chessum could be another. Borthwick’s other super strength is his grasp of set-piece nuts and bolts. Get the basics right, concentrate on the here and now and, with two home games first up, there is a chance to alter the narrative immediately. Clarity, simplicity, honesty, enjoyment – get those four pillars in place and most rugby teams will swiftly improve.
Under Eddie Jones, England had reached the point where no one could quite work out what they were trying to do. Including, it sometimes seemed, the players themselves. One minute they were supposed to be blasting people up front, next they were meant to be reinventing the modern game. Or was it the other way around? No wonder good young players such as Jack van Poortvliet and Marcus Smith were looking increasingly confused.
The first priority, given the events of the South Africa game, will be to shore up England’s scrum and lineout. But simply lumbering around and playing slow, predictable rugby in the Six Nations is going to be insufficient, particularly against the better teams. What England have conspicuously lacked – with the notable exception of Ellis Genge – is upfront dynamism. Billy Vunipola, for whatever reason, could not supply enough of it in the autumn and England need to find renewed impetus at No 8. That could mean a recall for Alex Dombrandt, assuming he is fit, as part of a rejigged back row. And what about Tom Curry at 6, with Jack Willis or Ben Earl at 7 and an unfettered Sam Simmonds bursting off the bench? Suddenly it might be England’s opponents with their hands full.
Welcome back to all-too familiar territory. If the new regime really wants to make a statement it would grasp the nettle and pick one of Owen Farrell or Smith to start, rather than persevering with their 10-12 axis. It is neither player’s fault, necessarily, but England need to try something different. With Smith and George Ford injured, restoring Farrell to 10 would also allow some clear-eyed midfield restructuring which must begin with an honest assessment of Manu Tuilagi’s form, fitness and future potential. What a player – and comfort blanket – he has been for successive England coaches. But might full-throttle, 20-minute impact-sub contributions now be the way ahead?
That would leave Kelly and the previously discarded Ollie Lawrence or Alex Lozowski fighting over one centre position, with Henry Slade or Elliot Daly at 13. Freddie Steward has been excellent at full-back and Tommy Freeman is clearly a class act in development. If England are looking to change things up, that leaves one spare wing spot for a genuine game-breaker such as Newcastle’s Adam Radwan, London Irish’s Ollie Hassell-Collins or the whole-hearted Cadan Murley. Harlequins’ Danny Care reckons the latter will enter the equation sooner rather than later. “Someone like Cadan has just got to keep doing his thing: keep scoring tries, keep running hard, keep being special. I know that boy will play for England one day. I’m sure of it. Oscar Beard is another great lad with great potential.”
The soothing balm supplied by the laid-back Courtney Lawes as England’s summer tour captain was conspicuous by its absence during the November Tests. Happily Lawes, sidelined for the past three months, is due back for Northampton this weekend but the big man will be 34 in February and cannot soldier on for ever. While Farrell was very much the alpha male in Jones’s setup and Borthwick knows him well from their Saracens days, the incoming head coach will also be aware of the successful precedent early in his first coaching stint with England in 2016.
Back then Jones decided to remove the captaincy from Chris Robshaw and give it to Dylan Hartley with the aim of rebooting the squad after their 2015 World Cup disappointment. It would not be a massive surprise if something similar happened again. Borthwick successfully installed the 27-year-old Genge as his captain at Leicester and is a fan of his commitment, passion and emotional intelligence. If handed the England armband, the Bristol prop would certainly not allow his side to take a backward step.
It should be obvious that English rugby’s problems do not begin and end with the national head coach. Some of Twickenham’s ticket prices make even this winter’s utility bills look reasonable and there is increasing unrest in the shires about the amount of money spent on elite rugby. All this can be massaged away if the team is winning; if not, grievances tend to multiply rapidly. Particularly with a World Cup only nine months away.
Jones did not see it as his job to manage upwards at the Rugby Football Union but Borthwick has been deeply embedded in the English club game for almost 25 years and knows where all the skeletons are. If he wants to go to the RFU’s chief executive, Bill Sweeney, and ask for special dispensation to pick – say – a French-based player such as Montpellier’s Zach Mercer, the Top 14 player of the year, in the Six Nations he should not hesitate to do so. If the current turmoil cannot trigger the “exceptional circumstances” clause in the RFU’s eligibility regulations, what will?