Ready or not, England are about to launch the Steve Borthwick era and all eyes will be on them.
In a Championship full of fascinating sub-plots, the RFU’s decision to replace Eddie Jones after seven years as head coach and replace him with Borthwick is perhaps the biggest of the lot.
Out of the ashes will come new life and many believed Jones’ time was up after a difficult two years.
But with the World Cup looming on the horizon and plenty of fresh players set to be thrown in at the deep end, the pressure is on Borthwick to nurture that new life at a rapid rate.
The Guinness Six Nations is hardly a nursery, especially with daunting trips to Cardiff and Dublin on England’s slate, but that is all part of the excitement surrounding this team.
A lengthy injury list has not helped England’s preparations – especially at hooker, where Borthwick will have to look deep into the Premiership to find someone readily available – but two home games, against Scotland and Italy, is a nice way to start.
By the time they cross the Severn Bridge to face Wales in Round 3, we will know about this England team, while in March they face defending champions France and finish off in Dublin at the world’s number one-ranked team.
In a typically unpredictable Championship, the only guarantee is that England’s journey will be a fascinating ride.
With Borthwick yet to take charge of a game, it is hard to accurately read how England will play but there are plenty of hints from his time at Leicester Tigers.
Defensively, there was no better side than Borthwick’s Tigers, conceding just 452 points at an average of 18 points per game. This all revolved around defensively sound centres and a perfectly balanced back row.
The fact that defence coach Kevin Sinfield has joined Borthwick from Leicester should make that transition easier.
Nick Evans is an interesting appointment as attack coach and the message coming from the coaches is the need for clarity. Tigers were capable of scoring from anywhere on the pitch under Borthwick, 3.67 tries per game in fact, with the playmaker – George Ford – using his variety of different attacking options to wear down defences.
Therefore, much depends on whether Borthwick opts for Owen Farrell at fly-half or a 10-12 axis of Marcus Smith and his captain, while who starts on the wings will be as equally fascinating.
Coach: Steve Borthwick
‘Detail, detail, detail’ – if there is one word that comes back over and over when it comes to Steve Borthwick, it is his relentless attention to detail.
After retiring from a glittering career at both club and international level, he moved into coaching, with his first role coming under Jones as an assistant coach for Japan.
Since then he has worked at Bristol Bears, was England’s forwards coach from 2015-2020 and led Leicester Tigers to a Gallagher Premiership title just two years into the job.
Now it is his time for the biggest role in English rugby and with Jones leaving as statistically England’s best-ever head coach, he has big boots to fill.
Captain: Owen Farrell
Captain for much of the last five years, Farrell is the stable and sensible choice to retain the armband this year.
Courtney Lawes briefly replaced him in 2021 and 2022 but injury has hampered the Northampton Saints forward in recent times, allowing Farrell to take it back.
Traditionally a fly-half, Farrell was used at inside centre to accommodate young buck Marcus Smith in Jones’ final 12 months. Whether Borthwick sticks with that plan or restores Farrell to his favoured position will be one of the storylines to watch.
Star man – Maro Itoje
Itoje has arguably epitomised England’s journey under Jones. Sensational for so long, he has been comparatively subdued in the last couple of seasons.
If Borthwick can get the Saracens lock back to his rampaging best, then England will be on track. With a fiery attitude and all-action game, he is a menace at the set-piece and breakdown, two areas England must improve, and he has the rare ability of being able to elevate a team to new heights.
A veteran of three Six Nations titles, including that 2016 Grand Slam, he is still just 28 and has plenty left in the tank. A fresh voice might just be what he needs to rediscover his brilliant best.
Breakthrough candidate – Dan Kelly
Ellis Genge and George Ford were probably the two most important players in Borthwick’s Leicester side, but there is no doubt who the unsung hero was – Dan Kelly.
The inside centre was essentially the glue that held the backline together both in defence and attack – in other words, the perfect centre.
Kelly, who has one cap to date, will be a frontrunner at No.12, but other strong ball-carrying presences such as Manu Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence are also in contention to start at inside centre.
Unsung hero – Owen Farrell
It might be strange for the captain to also be an unsung hero but there is a possibility that, despite 101 caps and 1125 points, Owen Farrell is still underrated.
Marcus Smith or George Ford may be the people’s choice at No.10 but there is a reason England and the Lions have built teams around him for the past decade.
Farrell’s credentials include rock-solid defence and expert leadership, but he is also a highly-skilled creative player – an attribute that is often overlooked. His goal-kicking success may have dipped in recent seasons but with a game on the line, there are few players you would rather lining up.
England have faced Scotland in Round 1 in each of the previous three Championships and must hope this year’s result is better than the last. Scotland edged a tight game 20-17 at BT Murrayfield to put England immediately on the back foot.
They recovered with a comfortable victory in Rome and then a 23-19 success at home to Wales, but Charlie Ewels’ red card barely a minute into their Round 4 game with Ireland scuppered any chances of winning the Championship.
They lost 32-15 that day, and were then overwhelmed by France a week later as Les Bleus won the Grand Slam. In the end, they finished third in the table, pipping Scotland on points difference.
15. Freddie Steward, 14. Max Malins, 13. Henry Slade, 12. Dan Kelly, 11. Ollie Hassell-Collins, 10. Owen Farrell, 9. Jack van Poortvliet, 1. Ellis Genge, 2. Jack Walker, 3. Dan Cole, 4. Maro Itoje, 5. Jonny Hill, 6. Jack Willis, 7. Ben Earl, 8. Alex Dombrandt
Twickenham, fondly known as the Cabbage Patch because of its former use, is the largest dedicated rugby venue in the world.
It has a long and illustrious history, having been redeveloped a total of nine times since its first match in 1909 and has played host to two Rugby World Cup finals in 1991 and 2015.
It is also the site for the annual Premiership Rugby Final, every England Test match and the Varsity Match between Oxford and Cambridge, as well as six Heineken Champions Cup finals.
Strength: Steve Borthwick
The talent at England’s disposal is not in doubt and a fresh voice can work wonders.
Jones himself won the Grand Slam at his first attempt in 2016, while Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt have also had similar success with teams in need of a pick-me-up.
With exciting talents like Ben Earl, Jack Willis and Dan Kelly set to be given a run of games, there is a freshness to England and – based on Borthwick’s time at Leicester – they have a high-quality head coach with new ideas to unlock it.
Weakness: The set-piece
England struggled in the pack for much of 2022, with France overpowering them in the Guinness Six Nations, Scotland getting some joy up front at BT Murrayfield and more recently, New Zealand and most evidently South Africa winning the scrum battle in the Autumn Nations Series.
Unsurprisingly, given Borthwick’s expertise as both a player and coach, one of the fundamentals in his sides is a strong set-piece and with England that will almost certainly be one of the first things he will look to implement.
A self-proclaimed rugby ‘nause’, Borthwick spent most of his time as a player studying lineout calls and opposition jumping patterns. Expect England’s lineout to be a weapon when he takes over.
What the press are saying:
Gerard Meagher, Guardian rugby reporter: “It remains to be seen how much Steve Borthwick will look to copy the blueprint he enjoyed success with at Leicester but it can be said with some certainty he will make England robust in defence and harder to beat.
“The Tigers’ title triumph was founded on defensive organisation and tactical kicking – not attributes that will necessarily excite the Twickenham faithful but they will not mind in the early days at least if England are winning.
𝐎𝐧𝐞 𝐰𝐞𝐞𝐤 𝐭𝐨 𝐠𝐨 📅
Current excitement levels 📈#ENGvSCO pic.twitter.com/hCIOd3piZH
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) January 28, 2023
“Borthwick seems more determined to reward domestic form and there will be a bounce of sorts under the new coach.
“But while he would not admit it, he needs to have the World Cup in the back of his mind because in-form Premiership players capable of delivering short-term improvements are not necessarily cut out for the pressures of knockout rugby in France.”
If they were a pop group, they would be…The Gorillaz
A changing line-up, a new vibe and some fresh material…2023 is a big year for both, even if it is a stretch to liken Steve Borthwick to Damon Albarn.