The reminders of the past are everywhere Twickenham. Even as Steve Borthwick named his first Six Nations squad as England head coach, with his own approach and touch, there are unavoidable spectres.
The claustrophobic nature of rugby means the past and present collide frequently, so just as Borthwick was making the final calls to those who did and didn’t make his first 36-man squad on Sunday evening, he’d have been aware of the breaking news in Australia of Eddie Jones, his predecessor, being crowned as the Wallabies’ new saviour on a five-year contract.
Their careers have been intertwined. Jones signed Borthwick as a player at Saracens, he brought Borthwick into the Japan coaching staff for the 2015 World Cup, and appointed him as a permanent assistant with England from 2016 to 2019. Borthwick left to be Leicester Tigers coach where he led them to the Premiership title in 2022, and when Jones was shown the door after the past autumn series, it was Borthwick who took up the post.
On Monday morning Borthwick was there at Twickenham in his own right — the main man, charged with turning England into a team capable of winning the World Cup in just 10 months’ time, with nine games to find a winning formula. But still one of the first questions was about Jones.
The peer vacuum of professional sport means Borthwick will forever be held up against his predecessors. Jones being back so soon continues to make him an active part of the England narrative with Australia and England likely meeting in the quarterfinals of the World Cup later this year if form and expectation ring true.
When Borthwick was confirmed as England head coach, Jones sent him a message wishing him well. Borthwick returned the favour on Monday morning before he faced the media to unveil his first squad.
But despite Jones now focusing on his new life Down Under — he will still be in the back of the minds of those at Twickenham. But don’t expect Borthwick to give it a moment’s thought.
“It’s nothing to do with me,” Borthwick said. “My job is to coach the England rugby team, that’s what I’m interested in. It’s all about the team we wish to build.”
If England make a winning start to the Six Nations, it will help split eras, Borthwick drawing a line under his own name in the role and others consigned to memory. But victory is key.
Borthwick started the announcement by delivering a carefully-planned monologue on this group — referencing the youth, the experience and the reoccurring theme of wanting this group to “fight” for the shirt. He crowned Owen Farrell captain. It was eloquent and passionate, perfectly capturing why there is a generation of players at Bath, Saracens and England who swear by Borthwick’s captaincy.
But underpinning it all was a quiet urgency. With just 19 days until England face Scotland on Feb. 4, and just a couple of weeks after Borthwick was confirmed as head coach, he vowed to work for every minute of every day to make this group the best they can be.
The line drawn in the sand will give Borthwick some grace — taking charge of a team just 10 months out of a World Cup is a brutal task, but as Michael Cheika proved in 2015 with the Wallabies, you can make an impact in that time.
Borthwick’s made his early stamp by dropping Billy Vunipola, Jonny May and Jack Nowell — all players he knows well from previous lives. Then there was the injection of youth, and the recall for some like Dan Cole who were in the international wilderness just a month or so ago. The early sign was clear: this is Borthwick’s England team.
He’s usually a man of few words. Borthwick’s not someone who likes the spotlight. There were a couple of tongue-in-cheek moments, but nothing like Jones’ delivery. Instead it was heartfelt — he talked about his first impressions of Farrell and of his vice-captains Courtney Lawes and Ellis Genge. He has this proud smile which breaks out across his face as he talks about various players and the options he has available. Every word, every way he navigates questions underpins how this job is everything to Borthwick.
But there are his own ghosts. He is the one telling them they’re either in the squad or not, but he also knows the pain on the other end of the phone. His journey as England captain was ended unceremoniously — back in 2010 he was captain for the Six Nations but picked up a knee injury and by the following autumn, he was omitted from the Elite Player Squad and dropped.
He had gone from being captain to being told not only was he dropped from the England squad, but also from the then “A Squad.” You feel bubbling under the surface there’s still that pain there, but this will be a team ruled by far more than mere emotion and heartbreak. His first task, in his words, is to bring “clarity.”
“The reality is, in those games in the autumn series, when the pressure came on and things went wrong, or got challenged, the England team did not have the clarity to move forward and that’s a point the players have said to me many times,” Borthwick said. “So what do we need at the start of the Six Nations? The players need clarity on how they’re going to play. They need to go out there, and to have the courage to play to their strengths on the field, and fundamentally I want them to fight in every single contest.”
There’s that fight word again. With someone like Kevin Sinfield as defence coach, the squad will not want for inspiration. But then there’s Borthwick with the fear of losing, and Sinfield with the joy of winning.
“I want a team that fights — you know what I’m talking about, the manner in which we play and approach every contest,” Borthwick said. “We will make tactical changes, we will improve tactically over a period of time but fundamentally we need to go out on to that field against a Scotland team coming here with a lot of confidence and we need to fight.”
A day is a long time in sport, let alone a month. Back in October, Jones was briefing the media about his plans for the 2023 World Cup, how he saw the squad preparations, their training camp and how the next year would look. Then came the autumn series and plans were ripped up and Borthwick called in.
Jones will be doing his own salvage job in Australia, with that one eye on the possible quarterfinal against his old paymasters. Borthwick has already taken the first step in his time as England coach by putting his stamp on this squad.
And a line has been drawn — this is Borthwick’s way, he knows full well the pressure and expectation around him, but he’ll give it everything. A winning start to the Six Nations and those former hovering ghosts will be banished. For the time being, at least.