England: Steve Borthwick on leadership, style, fly-half decision, Dan Cole and much more as Six Nations comes into focus
As Steve Borthwick announced his first 36-man England squad, Planet Rugby’s James While was there to speak with the head coach and to listen to his explanation of his selection and strategy.
Here’s some of the more notable soundbites from the day at Twickenham as the Borthwick era now firmly gets underway as the Six Nations looms large.
“In the last number of weeks Owen (Farrell) has met with me a couple of times and met with Kevin Sinfield as well, had several phone calls, and when I rang him to specifically say to him that I would like him to be captain of the England rugby team, you could hear the silence on the other end of the phone, if you can hear a silence!” quipped the England head coach.
“There was a silence at the other end of the phone – a silence that reminded me of just how special that call is and how much it means to these guys; how much playing for England, leading England means to them. He was very excited by it. Owen has played over 100 times for England and more than a decade at the top level, you still see how much it still excites and how much it means, which is what we all want to see.
“You have also got a great complimentary leadership style with Courtney and Ellis; you have got people who drive standards, drive competitiveness, want to win. Courtney has another way where he just ‘plays fiercely’… he doesn’t need to say a word and everyone is intimidated because he’s that type of character, on the field. But off the field he is as relaxed as they come,” Borthwick observed.
“What we always need to do is understand what our core strength is? What are we really good at, that has helped us to get here? What me, Kev, Owen and all the players have to do is work out what we need to improve upon. That’s why it is important – how hard those three leaders work together.
“Owen has evolved. He has always been that incredibly competitive, driving character, always. But he has added more layers to his leadership and I saw that when I was here with England as assistant coach. I saw him evolving as a leader and picking traits up off Dylan (Hartley), which he was very good at. They worked together as a leadership group,” Borthwick explained.
“What you’ve got to do is to look at the players you have available to you when fixing a style. As an example if you look at the back-row it is fiercely competitive,” he noted.
“Jack Willis returned from injury at the weekend and I think anybody who was up at Sale for that game would have seen the way he came on and played so well. I was at the Saracens game on Saturday night and watching the way Ben Earl played was just outstanding. We want that competition throughout.
✅ Dan Cole, Elliot Daly, Max Malins
❌ Billy Vunipola, Jack Nowell, Jonny May
5⃣ uncapped players
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“There’s also players not in this squad who I have deliberately made a decision for them to be at their clubs, that are on the verge of returning from injury and I have made it clear that I want them to be at their clubs to have a full week’s preparation and have the potential to play and be available for selection the following week.
“George Ford is one of those; Henry Arundell is another one of them. I’m not going to say when they are going to be available – that would be wrong of me – but I’m hopeful that those two guys are going to be on the pitch very soon and then become available for England selection. They are fit to train but haven’t played.”
The fly-half dilemma
“I met with Fin Smith last Wednesday evening. We’d spoken on the phone but I hadn’t met him in person until last week. I’ve watched him play a lot clearly but I was struck by his demeanour, his confidence, his assuredness, his clear understanding of what he had to do to improve and how he was going about doing it. ‘This is what I’m really strong at, this is what I’m going to bring’, was his message.
“As a coach that’s great. This guy understands the game and at such a young age. I thought he played well in a challenging place to go and play at the weekend at Thomond and he is a very impressive young man,” praised the head coach.
“I met with Marcus (Smith) two weeks ago, and he sat down in front of me, opened his iPad with notes in it, and started to show me all the notes he’d made on the question I’d asked, what he was going to do, what the response to it was, his thoughts. This was a player who had gone away and put a lot of thought into it.
“I thought it was very impressive to come out like that versus Racing 92, having been out for that length of time. I spoke to him last night, spoke to the players yesterday, and said ‘congratulations you’re selected’. Just before that we talked about the game and I said ‘how are you?’ he said ‘first half we should’ve done this, that, and we could have done this, and if we’d done that better we would’ve won the game’. He just wants to get better, and I find that very impressive,” Borthwick shared.
Dan Cole returns
“If there’s somebody in the world who could be more efficient with his words than Dan Cole I’m yet to meet him,” Borthwick chuckled.
“I got the ‘thank you’, but Dan is never the most expressive – if a thank you said a million words about his excitement being back in this team then it would.
“Dan is desperate to be back in this squad. He has been an incredible servant to English rugby and to his club. And he wants to be back in an England shirt – and I can tell how much he’s wanting to be back.
“You’ll understand why probably since that last second of his last appearance for England. And as a rugby man myself, I find I have an incredible respect for him. I’ve asked him and I challenged him to improve in certain areas and he took on those challenges. You wouldn’t say he’s 34 now – (no Steve, 35!) or even 35, crikey – but he just keeps performing.”
Capturing the Premiership
“I said to the players that I wanted to bring their strengths onto the field. And that’s what you want as a player, I want them to bring all of themselves. I want them to be all in and to do that you’ve got to bring all these strengths. That gives you the best chance of success, so each of those players – we could go through each one and list two or three brilliant strengths. They have probably one outstanding super strength, and that’s what I’ve focused on. Now, the job I’ve got is to encourage them to come in and to create an environment that allows them to bring those strengths onto the field, the training field the match field, so we see the very best of them out there,” said Borthwick, with obvious pride.
“For me, getting that selection blend is the important one in the team. There are multiple facets to the game – the contest at the breakdown in the Six Nations is incredible, so the back-row especially have got to be brilliant in that area. We know some games are a great set-piece challenge so we need to make sure tactically we are right. I come back to the same thing. This is an overriding philosophy – I want the players to bring their strengths, whether, in say the case of Ollie Chessum or Lawes that is picked in the second-row, picked at six or wherever, I want them to bring their strengths into the game.”
Scottish banana skin
“You could say that,” Borthwick chuckled ahead of their Six Nations opener.
“You look at Scotland, what did they do, they beat Argentina by a lot, a team that beat England here. I am sure everyone round this table watched the Scotland game against New Zealand and you’d say they were unlucky not to beat New Zealand there. They were a kick away from beating Australia. So you look at the team and they were on the verge of beating three southern hemisphere opposition through that, the big Rugby Championship teams. My job is to use the 19 days as well I possibly can to prepare this team.
“I would imagine they will be full of confidence and wanting to take a shot at us – my job is to use the 19 days between now and then as best as I can.
🗣️ “Nothing to do with me, my job is to coach the England rugby team."
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“Nick Evans got a great understanding of the players around the Premiership and I have been really respectful of the fact that he is currently England coach and full-time at Harlequins. I think he gives us another perspective. And from my point of view, as a head coach, I want people who’ve got perspective – my job is always to bring the absolute final decision to it, but I want coaches who are going to challenge me, I want a captain and vice captains so we’re going to challenge me.
“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.
“Above all, the players need clarity on how they’re going to play. I need to bring them that clarity to have the courage to play to their strengths on the field, bring their strengths onto the field, and fundamentally I want them to fight in every single contest. As an England supporter watching those autumn series games I was – and I dare say like everyone around this table – I was gutted.
“We will make tactical changes, we will improve 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.”
READ MORE: England: Five talking points from Steve Borthwick’s 36-man squad as Premiership form rewarded