‘We do know there are issues in rugby right now’ – Borthwick sympathy for Wales ahead of Six Nations clash

Steve Borthwick says he understands that rugby is going through a difficult period
©David Howlett

After over a week’s discontent surrounding whether or not England’s trip to Wales would be postponed, Steve Borthwick says his squad “empathise wholeheartedly” with what their opponents have had to go through.

This comes after it was confirmed last night that Wales internationals would not strike after meeting with the Professional Rugby Board [PRB] on Wednesday. Reaching a compromise on the contractual issues which have plagued the back pages, Wales captain Ken Owens branded his nation as the “laughingstock” of world rugby.

As part of their resolution, Wales have reduced their controversial 60-cap rule to 25, the fixed variable element of contracts for Welsh-based players will be scrapped and moving forward, players have also been guaranteed representation on the PRB.

Threatening a strike as a new six-year deal between the WRU and the regions continued to go unsigned, with 90 players out of contract at the end of this current season have been unable to be offered new deals.

Due to the uncertainty, Dragons lock Will Rowlands - who has 21 Wales caps – opted to sign a deal with French giants Racing 92, while Liam Williams has been linked with a move to Japan, Josh Adams to France and Joe Hawkins a move to Exeter Chiefs.

While there is hope that Cardiff Rugby, Dragons RFC, Ospreys and Scarlets will find it much easier to offer their players new deals, it is believed that their budgets will be slashed and make competing with Europe’s best far more difficult.

England are in the midst of their own player exodus, with the likes of Luke Cowan-Dickie, Sam Simmonds, Joe Marchant and David Ribbans having signed contracts in France, the tightening of the salary cap in the Gallagher Premiership pushing some of the nation’s internationals to look overseas.

As things currently stand, a move outside of England prohibits players from representing their country. Earlier in the week, returning England forward Courtney Lawes described the situation in the English game as “not good enough”.

With top earners forced to having to look elsewhere, the 34-year-old stated his belief that something must be done in order to prevent more internationals from leaving. Part of the solution lies in the renegotiation of the Professional Game Agreement [PGA] which will take place in the coming months.

“Currently there are negotiations for a new Professional Game Agreement, starting in 2024,” Borthwick said in the wake of announcing his third England squad.

“Players have been involved in the early point of those discussions. From my point of view, they are in the early stages. We are concentrating very much on what we need to do here, in the midst of the Six Nations.

“But we do know there are issues in rugby right now. I, and all out players, sympathise wholeheartedly with what the Welsh players have had to go through. Nobody should have to go through the level of uncertainty they have had. Nobody should.

“With that in mind, I think this game is exactly what we need. We want these big games that are full of passion, that allow us to concentrate on the rugby.

“Everyone knows it’s been a challenging situation for rugby in this part of the world. We’ve seen two clubs no longer playing Premiership rugby this season. So we need to make sure those things are right.”

Following the collapse of his former club Wasps, openside flanker Jack Willis is the only member of Steve Borthwick’s squad playing his rugby outside of England.

Signing for Stade Toulousain, the 26-year-old is available for selection as a result of there being ‘exceptional circumstances’. At present, Willis’ future is uncertain, although younger brother, Tom, will return to England to turn out for Saracens after his time with Bordeaux comes to an end.

In order to boost his own England hopes, Zach Mercer will be moving to Gloucester after two seasons with Montpellier. During that time, the back-row has lifted the Top 14 and was named as the competition’s player of the season, maintaining throughout his international ambitions.

Looking at Willis and his time with England, it becomes an interesting case study. Getting a start against Italy and now this weekend against Wales, and it is clear that the Wasps Academy product is more than admired by the England coaching staff.

However, as a result of his club commitments prior to the Scotland Test, he was deemed as not being available for selection after a limited training period at Pennyhill Park.

When asked about this unprecedented period of departures and speculation around England’s top players, Borthwick was sympathetic while hinting at his preference.

“What we are faced with here are some extreme circumstances,” Borthwick said. “There are discussions ongoing about what this means and what the implications are going forward.

“It’s about the players’ livelihoods and careers as well. From my point of view, I want to make sure we are able to select the greatest number of players possible. And the best players possible.

“Those discussion are only at their starting point and clearly my focus is on the Six Nations. But do I want to make sure we have an England team where we have the best players possible? Yes.”

Making just one change to the starting England side which beat Italy last time out, Anthony Watson will lend his years of Test experience to the side in place of the injured Ollie Hassell-Collins.

On the bench there is a return for Courtney Lawes, who after picking up a calf injury at the tail end of January is available for selection again and Ben Curry also takes a slot on the bench in place of Ben Earl who returned to Saracens.

It is sure to be a Test for England, who have failed to win at the Principality Stadium since 2017. 

After a disrupted week, Warren Gatland has opted for experience to ground his side, while dropping Dan Biggar on favour of Owen Williams and Mason Grady gets the nod at outside centre.

Having been run ragged in their defeats to Ireland and Scotland, there was already work to do for Wales before you even factor in the emotional distress of their contractual situation which put the future of the professional game in the country up in the air.

Having had a cursory glance at the Wales squad, Borthwick believes that the intentions of this weekend’s opposition is clear as they hope to put far from preferential preparation behind them.

“Every one of us knows of instances where things like that have happened,” Borthwick said. “I think it’s a sign of Wales picking such an experienced team. 

“There’s a whole host of caps in there. I think it’s more than 500 caps in the forwards alone and more than 800 in the starting XV.

“When you start looking at that, they’re an experienced team. I’m sure they’re fully focussed on the game now, as we are.”