Six Nations preview: RFU’s risk to fall flat with Steve Borthwick faltering in first tournament in charge of England

James While

Next in our set of previews ahead of the Six Nations we examine the prospects of last year’s third place finishers, Steve Borthwick’s England.

This year’s edition of rugby’s greatest championship comes with the added weight of the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France looming in the minds of players and coaches alike.

England come into 2023 in some degree of turmoil, both on and off the pitch. Noise around issues such as the club game, tackle height laws and so on have provided a backdrop of blame, subterfuge and criticism to the governing body, the RFU, who also took the bold decision of firing their most successful coach in terms of win rate in history.

Nevertheless, the off-pitch disarray has been offset by calm and impressive displays in front of the media by Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield, and there’s little green shoots of hope that the former Tigers duo might be bringing in an era of clarity and focused selection, in contrast to the obsessive detail and left-field picks of their predecessor.

Their task is enormous: win, win hearts and minds and keep winning. And given their tight timescale of nine games together before the World Cup, training and playing time has never been more of the essence.

Last year

England’s year to forget started in Murrayfield when all was going so well until a moment of madness from hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie saw a yellow card and Scotland helping themselves to a penalty try which levelled matters at 17-17. Finn Russell then slotted a penalty to win the game for the Scots.

There was a much better a week later, however. Having never lost to Italy, the Rome trip saw that form continue as Marcus Smith lit up the match to see England home 33-0, followed by a visit by Wales to Twickenham that saw England sneak the match 23-19, despite being outscored three tries to one.

Charlie Ewels has never made the impact on Test rugby that Eddie Jones was looking for – that is until the 53rd second of the Ireland game at home when he clashed heads with James Ryan and became the third Englishman to see red at home. Nevertheless, with Ellis Genge putting in a monumental display, there was a lot to take out of this 32-15 loss as England held Ireland at bay until the 72nd minute.

Paris was a tough one and in some respects England’s aerial game caused France a lot of issues but, with the sheer calibre of player in blue, the result was never really in doubt. As soon as Francois Cros went over in the dying moments of the first half, the game was all but over, with Les Bleus eventually winning 25-13.

From thereon, a trip to Australia saw England win a series 2-1 against an injury-ridden Wallaby side, followed by an Autumn Nations series that saw an overall result of 2 losses, a draw and a win. With declining form of that nature and concerns about the visibility of a style and clear plan emerging, the RFU decided to change the man at the helm, sacking Jones and installing the admirable Borthwick in an attempt to get simplicity into the English game.

This year

For all the excitement around the new coaches, together with their impressive performances in front of the camera this year, the facts remain that England are short of form, short of world-class players, short in key positions and, above all, short in real Test match size compared to the likes of South Africa and France.

They have a tough schedule; Wales and Ireland away, Scotland, always a road bump, first up, and host France in the fourth match, hopefully when both sides are up to working temperature. Italy also visit Twickenham, packed with pace in their backline and with some world-class forwards such as Michele Lamaro, Federico Ruzza and Danilo Fischetti; a game that no team could take for granted (ask Wales!)

Borthwick’s selection have a consistent theme of picking form and pace, and judging by his combinations, a move to a smaller back-row but using real specialist flyers down the wings. His dilemma is that England have 50 players that are 6 or 7/10 at this level, and outside of Tom Curry, Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith, they have very few that you could consider are truly world-class.

The Premiership is a strange old place; it’s producing a raft of top-class looseheads, options galore at seven and loads of choice in the back three. But look for a big centre or two, seek some properly big locks or back-rows and you’ll be looking until doomsday. So pace and evasion has to be at the centre of Borthwick’s vision, and that is rather un-English.

On one hand this creates opportunities for players to put their hands up and to improve, but selecting a style, a team to deliver it and get results is a labour of Hercules himself. Put simply, Borthwick can pick his first team on gut feel and data; from thereon in he has one or maybe two chances to recalibrate that thinking. His initial decisions, and there’s some huge ones such as Smith and Farrell, are absolutely key to get right, because if he doesn’t, he’ll be out of time.

Key players

Owen Farrell, the true pantomime villain. Will he play 10, will he play 12? Who knows, but in the Borthwick era, having a man leading the team with 100 caps is an asset. In tight matches, he’s the king, a leader and a man of steel. However, should he transgress once more in the tackle, the repercussions could be enormous.

Farrell’s playmaker partner, Marcus Smith is another key part of the 23, but again there is huge uncertainty about where and if Smith starts. Our view is that he is a point of difference that can rip apart any defence in the world, and on that basis, him starting at 10 is more important than where Farrell starts. We suspect, however, Borthwick will see him as a finisher, and England will fail to impress, with Smith being brought back to start later on in the tournament, a ridiculous waste of the most threatening talent England has.

Meanwhile, Freddie Steward might not be the quickest, but in the air he’s the best and has a remarkable nose for the try line. With 40% of Test possession kicked, a man like Steward is essential; sure under the high ball, and always making a metre post contact.

Players to watch

Ollie Hassell-Collins is properly big, fast and aggressive, a complete modern Test winger. His call-up has been later than some would have wanted but his work rate, ability to come in off his wing and seek work are all exceptional. A confident kick and catch game and abrasion in defence adds up to the complete package. He could do for England what Rieko Ioane used to do on the wing for New Zealand.

Lewis Ludlam is one of England’s less than fashionable back-rowers. His roly-poly figure and flowing locks give the watcher a look of a tumbleweed filled with concrete, as he powers through contact with his carries again and again. Ludlam offers the England back-row balance: he’s the best man with ball in hand into collision and, for all the lovers of running rugby, Tests are about yards in contact, something Ludlam does better than any other available English flanker, whatever number he wears on his shirt.


This is such a hard one to predict. Sometimes a new coach gives that halo feeling, that 5% lift as a new voice is heard in the shed. Surely that’ll be enough to see off Scotland and Italy at home? You’d have thought so.

But then Cardiff and Wales hold a massive challenge – a team that’ll have the same halo feeling from Warren Gatland and a side that has a lot more beef in the lock and centre positions than England has. This is England’s turning point. Win it and they’re above par for the campaign. Lose it and it’s back to the drawing board.

With even the most optimistic Englishman understanding that both France and Ireland are huge uphill tasks, it all revolves around that Wales match. If they triumph, there is the chance of maybe third or second place in the Six Nations, but Gatland could well galvanise his team to a famous victory. Fourth.


Saturday, February 4 v Scotland (Twickenham Stadium)
Sunday, February 12 v Italy (Twickenham Stadium)
Saturday, February 25 v Wales (Principality Stadium)
Saturday, March 11 v France (Twickenham Stadium)
Saturday, March 18 v Ireland (Aviva Stadium)

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