England head coach Steve Borthwick on ‘very, very tight calls’, picking Joe Marchant over Henry Slade and Rugby World Cup belief

James While
Steve Borthwick naming his England squad for the Rugby World Cup.

Steve Borthwick naming his England squad for the Rugby World Cup.

England head coach Steve Borthwick announced his Rugby World Cup squad at Twickenham on Monday and Planet Rugby’s James While spoke to him about his calls.

With some big name omissions including both Henry Slade and Alex Dombrandt, Borthwick knows that there will be some raised eyebrows over his selections, but given the depth of knowledge with something approaching 40 caps per player average, the squad looks powerful, credible and above all, experienced.

“I’m really pleased that we are confirming selection of the squad today and I think that has been an important step for us. I was aware last week heading into the Test match that there was a lot of talk among the players and around the players about selection but that’s done now. That’s finished and this is a positive step for us,” Borthwick confirmed.

The process

“The selection process has been in a series of ongoing meetings and collating of information to inform the picture. And going into Saturday night we were pretty clear on what the final selection decisions were and also very clear about the key questions that needed to be answered within that process.

“It was very structured and clear in that way, but clearly, it came down to some final very, very tight calls and once we had finished that meeting then it was simply down to me to make the final decision on those calls.

“I’m very excited about the squad and I think the players, when I spoke to them this morning, were tremendously excited about it too. There’s a great opportunity in front of them and it’s important that we keep building over these next few weeks so we are ready for Argentina on September 9.”

Additions and omissions

With both Tom Willis and Dombrandt omitted, there is a question mark over back up to Billy Vunipola, a man who has not played since April and hasn’t yet featured in a Borthwick-coached Test.

“Clearly, there was a lot of deliberation over back-row, centre and back three,” he continued.

“There’s no doubt that when I’m watching games now, a huge aspect is the power game. I watch teams play and you see teams that have that power have a real advantage but what you’ve got to be able to do is combat that.

“As we found at the weekend, in the first half we won three scrum penalties, and in the second half they won three scrum penalties and then we didn’t capitalise on our opportunities and they did. That was one of the key differences. You’ve got to have a pack that can combat against the power of the opposition against the top teams.

“I think Lewis Ludlam and Ben Earl with their ability are able to cover eight and you saw that at the end of last season with Earl, out here at the final, when he played at the base of the scrum. Also there’s Tom Curry, who has played for England at number eight at Test level as well. There’s always a balance in selection and it’s about having people who can play in different positions as opposed to just specialist positions. That’s an important aspect and I feel well covered there.”

Clear communication

With a number of experienced favourites missing out, especially in the case of Slade and Dombrandt, the England head coach explained he wanted to speak to those players and to tell them about their omission in person, in an open manner.

“I think all the conversations like this are challenging conversations, and in particular, tough for the player. I’ve been sat in the player’s shoes and I still remember it – I can even remember where I was – when I got the phone call saying I wasn’t picked in a World Cup squad,” said Borthwick.

“I still remember what was said so I think ensuring that those conversations are clear, those conversations have the empathy is important, but they’re tough regardless. Henry’s a very, very good player who’s done really well but in this instance we have an informed picture, we have all the bits of information and then it came down to a judgement call.

“I spoke to him and asked him to be ready to go, so that if the opportunity arises and if something changes – and I think we’re all aware enough of the World Cups that something will change at some point – that he’s ready and able to play a major part in the 33 at some stage.

Joe Marchant’s performance against Wales was one of the factors in my thinking. Another factor within it is the opportunity I’ve had to see him for the last eight weeks and work with him and the players. That’s been a big plus, that time to really look at the players and see how they work together and see the different strengths and opportunities they bring and one other aspect around Joe is his ability to play on the wing as well. He’s had experience there and played a lot of times. That’s the kind of positional flexibility you want in the team as well,” the coach expanded.

Experience is key

“I think the experience we have is vitally important. We’re averaging 40 or so caps across the squad and as a secondary point to that you have the leadership. If you start looking throughout the team you’ve got people with experience of an incredible amount of leadership, be it Ellis (Genge) Jamie (George) Billy (Vunipola), Tom Curry, and then I go through the team and then there’s Courtney Lawes, so we have a vast amount of leadership across the team.

“And then I see elements (in selection) where we’ve had gone for a certain amount of pace in terms of what Henry Arundell brings now in the outside backs, of the what Ben Earl brings within the back-row, and I think Theo Dan adds something with the athleticism he brings within it as well.”

On the subject of Dan, Borthwick admitted that the hooking position has become a bit of a concern in light of Luke Cowan-Dickie’s long-term injury and that after Jamie George, there is something of a drop off to the other players selected.

“I’ll be very clear we’d want more depth and experience in that position, but that’s the situation we have found ourselves in,” he confirmed.

“Theo Dan has emerged over the last season as a player of incredible potential. Jack Walker, whilst only playing a certain amount of time during the Six Nations, is also a guy who has been around the England squad over a number of years and has also played a number of big games for Harlequins. But yes, that experience behind Jamie, there is a big gap.

“Jamie was down in Cardiff at the weekend helping with the other hookers and that’s been an enormous aspect, ensuring that experience helps the players who have less experience.”

Leadership

For the second tournament running Owen Farrell has been named as captain as he enters his fourth World Cup, and Borthwick believes the Saracen’s leadership is maturing and benefiting from his age and experience.

“There’s a three-year gap in my experience of working with Owen and we discussed together what had changed and developed that time. He’s changed like we all have in that period and I am sure he’s changed his leadership style. He still has that absolute inner competitiveness that we all see within him but he’s always developed the ability to recognise when that coolness and calm is required. He’s added a lot of skills to his leadership and throughout the Six Nations there was definitely a period of he and I trying to understand how best to work together – but now we’re pretty clear how we want to do that.

“In terms of leadership, a big part of what we do training wise is about creating decision scenarios. In an ideal world you’d have players that have played in lots of finals, won lots of trophies, that’s what you’d want throughout your squad. Because players have seen it, they’ve seen the toughest circumstances in the biggest games, exactly what needs to be done. We do a lot around scenarios to try and accelerate, both on the field and off the field, that learning.

“The aspect around leadership – ultimately at some point every player is going to have to lead some situation. We have got a captain and two vice-captains but understand every player is going to have to lead at some point in this World Cup.”

Belief

“I think the players have a lot of belief in the potential within this squad. They have a lot of faith about what they possibly can achieve, and I see part of my role is understanding, showing them the path of how they are going to be able to achieve that and what exactly needs to be done in order to get to that point.

“Whenever I chat to any coaches, and you know we had some visitors last week in camp, you chat to them and it is very much you break down the process of exactly what you need to do in the big tournament.

“The next few weeks, the next three Test matches, we will be building through those Test matches, we are going to change the training load, in the next week or two’s time, so the players will get sharper, and then we play against Argentina. From that point on, it’s very clear, play against Argentina then we concentrate what happens the next week. Because that’s the path.

“If you could lay it out and say to me, ‘what would you want to be right now?’, any team going to any World Cup, I’d use Clive Woodward’s words – ‘you want to be the best team in the world. Ranked number one, the favourites’. That’s what Ireland have right now and you want to make sure you’re the best team. Now that’s not our situation, our situation is different. But we’re going to work very, very hard, very smart to ensure that we are tactically very astute in games and very physically uncompromising,” Borthwick concluded.

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