‘The players need clarity on how they’re going to play’ – Borthwick on key work for Six Nations

Steve Borthwick's first game as England coach is on February 4 against Scotland
©David Howlett

In the month since Steve Borthwick took charge of England, the 43-year-old has certainly been busy.

Those four weeks have seen him assemble the coaching staff which will lead England during the upcoming Guinness Six Nations, preside over two one-day camps and announce his first squad.

Unveiling his 36-man squad for the Six Nations on Monday, like in December the former Leicester Tigers boss came across calm and confident. His opening statements seemed as though they had been ripped from the script of 300, Borthwick again sending a call to arms for England supporters who have in recent times been disillusioned.

Quickly after his appointment, England announced the first changes to their coaching staff. This included the departure of forwards coach Matt Proudfoot and newly appointed defence coach Brett Hodgson’s services were not required due to Kevin Sinfield following Borthwick from Mattioli Woods Welford Road.

More recently, Harlequins backs and attack coach Nick Evans was confirmed as having committed to a short-term deal for England which will cover the Six Nations, the hope of the New Zealander signing more permanently in the future apparent, as well as signalling the end of Martin Gleeson’s tenure with the national team.

Borthwick confirmed he would be taking a hands-on role with his side, contributing wherever he can with a focus on the forwards, while Richard Cockerill – the sole survivor from the Eddie Jones regime – will coach the scrum, Sinfield the defence and Evans the attack.

Those one-day camps offered an insight into what selection might look like, however it wasn’t until the press release hit inboxes did we know exactly what was in store. Choosing not to select seasoned campaigners in Jack Nowell, Jonny May and Billy Vunipola, Borthwick has very much opted to choose based on form rather than credit in the bank.

Among others, Borthwick recalled Dan Cole, Elliot Daly, Bean Earl, Max Malins and Ben Curry, those players having seen their involvements with the national side dwindle for one reason or another under Jones and from the start of next week will begin preparations for the Six Nations, the first campaign under new leadership.

To get the side on the same page, Borthwick will call upon the clarity which has fared him so well during his time as Leicester coach and in his first outings as England’s head coach so far, and something which the Cumbrian says players did not have prior.

“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.

“So, what do we need at the start of the Six Nations? The players need clarity on how they’re going to play. They need to go out there, to have the courage to play to their strength on the field, bring 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. Some of the Saturday nights – you want to write about the team doing well, make it a bit easier, I want you guys to be proud of this team. I want a team that fights – you know what I am talking about, the manner in which we play and approach every contest.

“We will make tactical changes, we will improve tactically over a period of time, but fundamentally we need to go out onto that field against a Scotland team coming here with a lot of confidence and we need to fight.”

Selection for a Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland at Twickenham Stadium will certainly be intriguing. Whether it is the debate around who starts at fly-half or in the back-row with injury having struck Tom Curry and Billy Vunipola’s omission, there is much to be decided.

Borthwick said that prior to last weekend’s Heineken Champions Cup fixtures he had some idea of the first starting XV would look like, but after all the action on the continent and in South Africa, he was back to the drawing board.

What is certain is that there will be places up for grabs and each member of that 36-man squad will have a clean slate. But, as always, it is the time constraints of everything that seems to dog at everything with England.

It is eight months until the Rugby World Cup gets underway and nine games before that opening fixture with Argentina in Marseilles.

“I think in the time that we have, we will need to get the base of the game in place,” Borthwick said. “As I said to the players, the preparation that we have for that first game, expect basic preparation from what they can expect from the management team.

“Then we will get better in terms of how we prepare the team. And we will get better as a team accordingly. There will be some tactical changes, but clearly in the preparation we have, those are minimum.

“But the time is what it is and the way I am approaching it, I’m not going to be a coach who sits here and starts talking about time, or injuries or availability. I have got the opportunity to coach the England rugby team. I have got some fantastic players who are desperate to do well, desperate to build a team that we can all be proud of.

“All I will say to you is, whether you give me one day, one week or 10 years, I will use every minute that we have.”

As first games go, the Calcutta Cup will offer a stern test for England. Since 2017, England have only won the trophy just twice and under Gregor Townsend, Scotland have continued to grow.

Naming their Six Nations squad on Tuesday, Townsend has selected four uncapped players, including former England wing Ruaridh McConnochie, the side’s Autumn Nations Series hardly sparkling but offering much cause for optimism heading into a Rugby World Cup year.

Losing to Australia 15-16 and 23-31 to New Zealand and picking up comprehensive wins over both Fiji and Argentina, there is little reason to believe anything else other than this Scotland side having plenty of confidence.

“You look at Scotland, what did they do, they beat Argentina by a lot, a team that beat England here,” Borthwick said. “I am sure everyone round this table watched the Scotland game against New Zealand and you’d say they were lucky 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.

“Now they’ll be disappointed not to have won those games, so I’d imagine they’d come to Twickenham, which has been a pretty happy hunting ground for them, I’d imagine they’d come to Twickenham, which has been a pretty happy hunting ground for them, I’d imagine they’d probably come here full of confidence.

“I’d imagine they’d come here thinking they’ve got a settled team, a settled coaching team, they’ve been playing the way they’ve been playing, I’d imagine they’d come here full of confidence and wanting to take a shot at us. My job is to use the 19 days [from Monday 19 January] as well I possibly can prepare this team.”