When Steve Borthwick and Ellis Genge sat down in Twickenham Stadium to answer questions about England’s record-breaking 10-53 loss to France in the Guinness Six Nations, there was a sense that we had seen this all before.
Nearly three years ago, Borthwick took charge of a struggling Leicester Tigers in the Gallagher Premiership. If it were not for Saracens’ enforced relegation at the conclusion of the 2019/20 season, it may well have been the East Midlander’s who dropped to the Championship.
It was at Mattioli Woods Welford Road that the 43-year-old developed into one of the top coaches in the English club game, while Genge matured into more than just a top-class prop forward, but into a leader too.
Captaining his country for the first time on Saturday, it was a record defeat and incurred memories of September 2020 and his first time captaining Leicester.
Like Saturday, it was a record loss as Tigers were battered by Wasps in Coventry 54-7, the loosehead speaking bluntly at the conclusion of the 80 minutes.
That day at the Coventry Building Society Arena, Genge described his teams’ efforts as “not good enough” and fronted up as the club adjusted to life under Borthwick.
In time, Leicester would rekindle their successes of years gone by. Finishing a Challenge Cup campaign as runners-up and then winning the Premiership last season, Borthwick catching the attention of the powers that be at the Rugby Football Union before Eddie Jones’s early axing sped up the Cumbrian’s re-arrival to Twickenham Stadium.
Throughout his early tenure with Tigers after leaving his role as England’s forwards coach, it felt as though Borthwick was prodding and probing to find his best side, that process potentially well underway again at Twickenham.
In any case, England were not good enough against France. Bullied in every facet of the game, it was such a hard watch for England fans that they filed out of the stadium early, far from pleased with what they had seen on the pitch.
Those that stayed to the final whistle would boo the England players off the pitch, while the strong French contingent in West London sang La Marseillaise and rejoiced in a first Six Nations win at Twickenham since 2005.
When interviewed post-match, France head coach Fabien Galthie shed tears at his team’s achievement, the world’s second ranked side proving that their Rugby World Cup credentials are still valid later this year despite Ireland’s superius form.
While France went into Le Crunch as favourites, it was a surprise as how big the gap was between the two sides. While that Gallic flair was a part of the victory, the rest of it was sheer physicality, talent and execution of a plan to perfection.
“The key element is that we know where we are,” Borthwick said. “It shows just how much work we have to do. We play Ireland next week, so we’ve gone from playing the second best team in the world, and they showed just how much better they are than where we currently are.
“I said we’d have a good understanding of where we’re at as a team by the end of the championship and you can see how much work we’ve got to do.
“Ultimately when you play a game and you lose the collision as badly as we did in defence and giving the opposition opportunity, quick ball, offloads and you lose it in attack where you’re not able to generate quick ball in terms of these turnovers at the breakdown, it’s hard to get a foothold in the game. That was exactly the case today.”
At the time of his appointment as England boss in December, Borthwick was open about the challenge he had on his hands. England had ranked poorly across the board in the latter stages of Jones’s time in charge, while stories of discontent off the field continued to circulate.
Laying bare the shortcomings of England, it is apparent that there is plenty to do, each game a learning experience. But in addition to being educational outings, Borthwick has been keen to emphasise that he wants his team to win every game.
Doing both inherently seems like a tough task. One of the buzzwords throughout the 43-year-old’s short tenure has been fight, something which was in short supply as England leaked seven tries and scarcely threatened the French defence in response.
“We’ll learn a lot about ourselves, and we’ll go away from this, thoroughly, the game and the instances,” Borthwick said. “For many players, it’ll be a great learning experience for us.
“But I say that in the sense that we didn’t want this. But we have to maximise what we can from it. I’ll make this clear, we fell a long, long way short of where we want to be.
“The way we were in the contact area wasn’t good enough, on both sides of the ball. That is a huge lesson as you look at the top teams in the world and they are powerful, and France showed their class and character.”
With six months until the World Cup, the work that England have to do in a short space of time is mounting. It was something on the mind of England’s captain against France, who is looking forward to being the underdog next weekend.
“Emotionally, I’m pretty disappointed,” Genge said. “As Steve alluded to, we’ve got a lot of work to do, and it shows us where we’re at.
“Even when we went in at half-time 20 points down, the message was that we could always believe.
“We genuinely did believe, but we lost the contact area and when you lose the contact area at Test level, momentum is a snowball effect, you start chasing your tail and you struggle to get a foothold in the game.
“Brilliant, we’re going to graft, we’re going to work as hard as we can and see where we’re at in six months.”
With a trip to Ireland on the final weekend of Six Nations action, England will then be facing the number one side in the world, the task ahead palpably more significant than the last.
Ireland survived injuries galore in Scotland to set-up the chance of winning a Grand Slam at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday afternoon.
After the weekend’s result, Borthwick has been involved in England’s top three defeats at Twickenham Stadium. Aside from this defeat to France, the Cumbrian captained his country to the 6-42 loss to South Africa and 6-32 loss to New Zealand.
When asked, Borthwick said that his feelings remained the same, the taste of defeat no more bitter than 15 years ago. Andy Farrell’s Ireland are unlikely to take any prisoners either.
In spite of the adversity they have faced, the side are primed to lift a trophy this weekend and from the reaction online, England supporters are not looking forward to.
Borthwick has just a week to prepare England. A finite amount of time to repair confidence, to re-establish the belief in what the group are trying to achieve, it is a stern challenge, can a winning side be created in a week?
“That’s one of the challenges,” Borthwick said. “Coming into this role I knew this was going to be a big challenge.
“I’ve been very clear about this right since we met upstairs at the end of December, I’ve been very clear there’s a gap and the job is to try and close the as quickly as we can, and I think you see how big the difference is.”