‘Talented’ and ‘determined’ – England’s new-look midfield in the eyes of Borthwick

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Steve Borthwick’s second game as England coach has seen the 43-year-old roll the dice with the visit of Italy in the second round of the Guinness Six Nations.

Through dropping Marcus Smith to the bench and handing his captain, Owen Farrell, the reigns at fly-half for the visit of the Italians, it is an experiment which could dictate the direction England goes in moving forward.

Smith and Farrell had formed an axis for the past nine England Tests, the pair never seemingly having cracked things at international level. 

Throughout his Friday press briefing, Borthwick maintained that his matchday 23 was the best squad to take on England and that Smith was by no means out of his plans entirely.

Consistently, Farrell has excelled at fly-half for his club side, Saracens, and with the keys to England’s attack, the 31-year-old may well be hoping to rekindle some of that club form.

Playing at half-back alongside Jack van Poortvliet, Farrell will have Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade outside of him to help the back three of Ollie Hassell-Collins, Max Malins and Freddie Steward thrive.

Inside Centre - Ollie Lawrence

Since making his England debut in 2020, Ollie Lawrence has made just eight appearances for England. His career has been stopped and started by injury issues and, most recently, the folding of Worcester Warriors.

Moving to Bath in October after his contract in the West Midlands was cancelled, the 23-year-old has strung together an impressive string of performances and shone for the Somerset club.

Explosive in attack and defence, the centre has regained some of that form which saw him first picked by Eddie Jones several years ago as a bright spark embedded in a Worcester team which was always scrapping at the foot of the Gallagher Premiership.

“I try to take people on how I meet them and my experience with them,” Borthwick said of Lawrence. 

“When I started to get to know him a few weeks ago, I see a player who is a quiet, humble young man who has been through a really challenging time at a club that no longer exists, then having to move and go into a new environment and new team.

“Watching that you learn about someone. I was watching him as a head coach of a different team, and I saw how well he played. How well he has played for Bath all season since he embraced jumping into a new environment to give everything he has.

“He is a quiet, humble, determined lad who is excited about being part of this England team. He is a really talented player who can defend very well, and he can pass and distribute.

“I pick them because of what they can bring, and I want them to be themselves and bring their character. I see a player who is immersing himself in it. He wants to keep getting better. You see that on the training field.

“He has been staying on with the coaches and for extra training. I have been really impressed by his work ethic.

“I’ve seen somebody who is trying to grab his opportunity with both hands. I see somebody who is determined to do well and be the best he can be.

“I see somebody who has a lot of growth in him. He is quick and is powerful and will get better in that regard.”

Outside Centre – Henry Slade

Across his 52 England caps to date, Henry Slade has had 11 different midfield partners. Over the years, this has included the likes of Sam Burgess, Jonathan Joseph and, of course, Farrell.

Back from a hip injury that meant he missed the Scotland loss, Slade offers a left-footed kicking option in the backline, while also being a deeper-lying distributor in the midfield.

“I sense a drive and determination from him that’s really quietly under the surface,” Borthwick said. “He’s very relaxed, very, very relaxed, but you see when he comes to rugby he’s very, very determined and he brings that to the team.

“I see a confidence and maturity. He has always been a really, really top quality rugby player and has been part of some big games and some big wins for England.

“What I see now, having been away for a period and now come back to the England team, I see his presence within the squad is even bigger than it was back then [when Borthwick was an assistant coach with England]. The respect he has from all the players is incredible.”

A first start for England since the conclusion of the last Six Nations, after the 29-year-old had started each game of the championship at inside centre while Farrell was out injured.

With a half century of Test match experience, Slade has clearly impressed Borthwick in the Cumbrian’s analysis, alongside that playing ability which saw him break onto the scene in 2019 as a teenager.

“You won’t be surprised to hear that when I’m looking at selection, I’m looking at the games where these players have played together previously,” Borthwick said.

“I’m looking at how it’s worked together – and there’s some big games – and going back several years to understand how they play together. And it’s been excellent.

“And I think they have a really good, joint understanding of the game, a shared understanding of the game and this week in training it’s been good.”