A poor build-up to the 2023 Rugby World Cup saw Steve Borthwick lose six of his nine Tests in charge – which included a first ever defeat to Fiji in England’s last warm-up game before the tournament started.
This streak was exacerbated by disciplinary problems, leaving England without fly-half and captain Owen Farrell and ball-carrying No 8 Billy Vunipola for their opening World Cup match against Argentina.
Ill-timed injuries to Anthony Watson and Jack van Poortvliet further depleted Borthwick’s options and forced him into late call-ups and plan changes.
Here’s my verdict on each member of the travelling party for France
Joe Marler (Harlequins)
England caps: 82
Delighted he has had a change of heart. Not sure he needed assurances. The player-manager relationship is clearly important here. That said, Joe is England’s most imposing loosehead. He is a man mountain and he can play.
Ellis Genge (Bristol Bears)
England caps: 52
Ellis would have been close to the full-time captain, surely. Eddie Jones moved him to defacto full-back and Steve wants him on the ball as much as possible, leading and snarling. It is a big World Cup for him. Can he prove himself on the international stage? Domestically, he has bossed it.
Bevan Rodd (Sale Sharks)
England caps: 3
We come from the same boarding house of the same school, so take my admiration with a pinch of salt perhaps. But his breakdown work is brilliant and he makes up for how he is giving away pounds to other front-rowers.
Jamie George (Saracens)
England caps: 79
We got called Dad’s Army in 2003. This lot have plenty of experience. England are going proper praetorian guard with the nastiest, gnarliest mongrels they can pick. George is front and centre of that.
Theo Dan (Saracens)
England caps: 3
A proper bolter. In 2003, we were far more settled and assured. This time, it was different, and the difficulty is that brilliance at club level does not always translate. It feels like a hell of a risk to take him. Then again, Jonah Lomu got pulled out of Hong Kong Sevens and did ok.
Jack Walker (Harlequins)
England caps: 4
They rave about Walker at Harlequins but he was not trusted to get more than five minutes in the Six Nations. George was playing 75 minutes in teams getting humped. What does that say about this coaching crew’s thinking? I am not sure he will get a huge amount of game time but you need cover in one of most important positions on the field. You cannot win line-outs and you lose. Simple.
Will Stuart (Bath Rugby)
England caps: 29
While I sometimes miss what is going on with tightheads, Stuart has really developed as a rugby player. He is really mobile and has changed my opinion of him.
Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers)
England caps: 102
Was Jason Leonard a marginal selection in 2003? He came off the bench and changed André Watson’s mind. With Cole, there is a lot in the bank with Borthwick as the rock on which Leicester built their title. What an opportunity, four years on from 2019, to show he is still here.
Kyle Sinckler (Bristol Bears)
England caps: 63
Maybe more touch-and-go than many thought, because Stuart could be first choice. I do not think Sinckler’s move to Bristol from Harlequins has quite worked and he might have benefited from the extra two squad places.
David Ribbans (Toulon)
England caps: 8
In the great lock combos, one is a battering ram. Even in this hybrid world, I like a 120kg second row who smashes things, and he can play. Remember that offload against New Zealand?
Maro Itoje (Saracens)
England caps: 70
There was a time when Itoje was a World XV player. It just feels as though during England’s demise under Eddie, a lot of players have had their reputations dented. To confirm his legacy, he needs an impressive World Cup.
Ollie Chessum (Leicester Tigers)
England caps: 11
Another of the Tigers army. In football, managers that are drafted into tricky situations hit the transfer market and pick up old favourites. Chessum is mobile and he has scored tries. If you have older guys in the front row, he balances things…. And reminds me a bit of Shannon Frizell.
George Martin (Leicester Tigers)
England caps: 3
I am a big fan of George Martin. Eddie Jones gave him a cap out of nowhere in 2021 and then it was ‘thanks but not needed’. If I am in the backs, give me three or four George Martins in the pack. We will get decent ball because they all clatter people.
Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints)
England caps: 100
He has become so good – so good. Over the last decade, he is probably England’s most improved player and now one of their most influential. In big moments, he will be there.
Ben Earl (Saracens)
England caps: 18
If he missed this, I was going to try and get him an IPL contract because he is an excellent cricketer. I like him a lot, but I do not think he would be content with 20 on his back. It will be tough to force himself into the front-line back row but he is one hell of a competitor.
Lewis Ludlam (Northampton Saints)
England caps: 21
One of England’s best in the Six Nations; showing commitment, mongrel, get-up-and-go. It is impossible to understand a player’s influence inside the camp but it is obviously huge. He racks up big tackle counts and can play to systems.
Jack Willis (Toulouse)
England caps: 13
For all that people talk about cycles, you could go into a game with two Willis brothers and Pearson and say ‘why do you need a three-year build-up’. I have seen him make triple tackle efforts and win jackal turnovers. What a magic achievement with Toulouse, too.
Tom Curry (Sale Sharks)
England caps: 45
Among the first names you would write down. He can play across the back row and he is experienced from 2019. He has also added something to his game by working on his handling.
Billy Vunipola (Saracens)
England caps: 70
This is a real show of faith. He has been out in the cold and cannot know whether he is coming or going, but has broad enough shoulders. If he is fit, he has always been who I would pick. Has stared down some of the best in the world and got the better of them.
Alex Mitchell (Northampton Saints)
England caps: 5
Sport is cruel. Remember Dan Carter in 2011? Last-minute injuries are horrible, and will continue to deprive young sportspeople the chance to compete on the world stage. But as the door shuts on Jack van Poortvliet, who has been ruled out through injury, a door opens and I think Alex Mitchell is the best scrum-half in England. He’s got pace, zip, ambition. Whether or not he is allowed to play the Alex Mitchell way is another thing, but I hope he is. If this guy sees it is on to go from his own try-line, he won’t hang about.
Danny Care (Harlequins)
England caps: 90
Lazarus. In the wilderness, playing great for Harlequins, and now back. His short kicking game is the sharpest and Care is renowned for being able to find space.
Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers)
England caps: 124
He is heading to a fourth World Cup. A strong knowledge of the Borthwick template is not the only thing that will have got him in the squad. He will reassure others. Sometimes it is about more than just the rugby.
Owen Farrell (Saracens)
England caps: 107
Just a rockstar; a competitor, a winner, a champion, a goal-kicker under pressure. It seems like he has to keep proving himself, which surprises me. But I think he has to play 10.
George Ford (Sale Sharks)
England caps: 85
The main man for Leicester under Borthwick and had that unfortunate injury. He might have thought his race was run because Jones seemed to have pulled up the drawbridge. You stay patient in life, keep putting yourself on the start line. His short passing game is probably the best of the three fly-halves.
Marcus Smith (Harlequins)
England caps: 24
I would have him on the bench to change things. He will have been worried over his place at one stage because his start against France went cataclysmically wrong. There will be clamour for him to be more prominent but you feel like he has it all to do to be involved in the knockouts.
Manu Tuilagi (Sale Sharks)
England caps: 53
Another absolutely guaranteed selection, despite being left out at the start of the last Six Nations. Now can he go Saturday, Saturday, Saturday at the back end of the tournament? Strap him up, get him out there. One more gig. Just like Rocky IV.
Ollie Lawrence (Bath Rugby)
England caps: 14
He had a big Six Nations in a straightforward role, which can help players to stand out. Six months ago he was not considered as an option. Rugby changes and it does not change. One of your centres has to run through brick walls and Lawrence showed he was up to that.
Joe Marchant (Stade Francais)
England caps: 19
You sometimes wonder why players do not get that much love. Is he just behind Daly? I remember his bust against South Africa in 2021; he is as good an angle-runner as there is, a cracking defender and durable. He is perhaps between 23-33 in the pecking order.
Elliot Daly (Saracens)
England caps: 59
It was his break past Richie Mo’unga in 2019 that set the tone for that semi-final and he looked back to his best last season before doing a hammy. With everything he has been through, he will be chuffed to be there and could be a big factor in the tournament.
Max Malins (Bristol Bears)
England caps: 21
Enjoyed a big back-end of the season, even after missing the end of the Six Nations. Will have been challenged to change the perception of a luxury player. He will make a 20-point win into a 40-point win. In a nine-all thriller, can he be a factor? Look at Will Jordan. He and Beauden Barrett are worth 10 points. How does Malins become similarly potent?
Henry Arundell (Racing 92)
England caps: 8
There is a lot of noise for a kid with just a handful of seven caps. Wonder-tries against Toulon and Australia will do that. Every time I am on Instagram, he is doing squats. He will have proven that he can play in a system. A maverick in a system is fine. A maverick who cannot play in one is struggling.
Freddie Steward (Leicester Tigers)
England caps: 26
Already authoritative like Peter Schmeichel; now can he become a ball-player like Ederson? He is worth his weight in gold because of aerial dominance. Wigglesworth needs to get hold of him and sharpen those skills because Hugo Keenan and Thomas Ramos, for example, offer more with more ball in hand.
Jonny May (Gloucester Rugby)
England caps: 73
All those tries, that ability to get to the line has got him there after Anthony Watson’s injury. Put simply, he has found a way to score against everyone on the planet.