A sponge, an example & the epitome of work ethic – England’s new head coach Steve Borthwick

It is reported that Steve Borthwick will be appointed as England head coach on Monday
©David Howlett

With Steve Borthwick reportedly being appointed England head coach on Monday, TRU heard from two of the Leicester Tigers head coach’s former teammates to learn more about the 43-year-old.

From the moment that Borthwick’s mentor, Eddie Jones, was sacked by the RFU following a poor Autumn Nations Series, the Cumbrian was the front-runner for the top job at Twickenham Stadium.

Said to have told his Leicester team following their 23-16 win in the Heineken Champions Cup over Clermont that he would be departing Mattioli Woods Welford Road on Monday, his career has been one played out at the very top of the game.

Walking into Bath as a teenager, Borthwick would establish himself as a Premiership regular and England international before moving to Saracens and kick-starting the North London club’s success, even captaining every team he played for across a 18-year career.

‘He was just a sponge’

“I finally got picked for England U18s and I was so pleased,” former Bath hooker, Lee Mears, recalled, “I remember my dad saying, ‘son are you happy?’, and I said ‘no, of course I am not happy dad’.

“He asked what I meant, and I said, ‘well I have got to go and play Wales, where at U16s you would get your head kicked in, and I am going to have to play there and France with a pack that is basically lower sixth’, and at that age, thar is a massive difference.

“I look back now, having won that Six Nations and toured Australia successfully – and in that team David Flatman was a year young, John Dawson was a year young, Andrew Sheridan was a year young in the second-row with Steve Borthwick who was also a year young, and Alex Sanderson who was a year young too

“I remember looking at Borse and going ‘oh my god, are you going to be physical enough?’, and then within about half an hour of knowing him thinking ‘this lad is relentless. I left him for a year, and me Mike Tindall and Iain Balshaw joined Bath, and he joined us the year after.

“He was the only youngster that year come into what was a fully professional setup, and he fit straight in. He tagged onto Nigel Redman, who became a mentor for him, and it wasn’t long until he was in and around the side.”

Representing Bath for 10 years, it was in Somerset that Borthwick established himself as a professional rugby player. 

Already his leadership credentials were known, having captained Hutton Grammar School before moving to the West Country and later England A before making his debut for England in the 2001 Six Nations and his meticulous nature at the lineout also contributing to a reputation that only grew as his experience did.

For a time Borthwick was considered as being too light to compete in Test rugby, doing a tour of South Africa in 2000 but not getting a nod from Sir Clive Woodward in the series draw. 

“Lineouts, he was always good at that, and I massively appreciated that,” Mears said. “He was just a sponge, because he looked up to Nigel Redman who wasn’t the biggest guy in the world either and realised that Nigel always had to be different and evolve with the game.

“Nigel was around when there was no lifting and then excelled when lifting came. He was always really forward thinking and ingenious. Borse took that and then ran with it to the next level.

Leicester Tigers picked up a 23-16 win over Clermont in the Heineken Champions Cup on Saturday evening
©David Howlett

“It was a running joke at Bath; I would try and come up with a lineout move or call and then Borthers would tell me why it wouldn’t work and why he had already thought of it. But it was that kind of relationship where we always pushed each other on in trying to develop.”

When Namibia international Jacques Burger first came across Borthwick, it was during the 2009/10 season. Moving to North London partway through that season, Burger would help take Saracens to their first ever Premiership final and lost to Leicester Tigers 27-33 at Twickenham Stadium.

Among a host of South Africans to move to the club under the guidance of Brendan Venter, it was a hugely influential period in the club’s history and when they went from ‘the nearly men’ to consistent winners both domestically and on the continent.

“Steve had a skillset,” Borthwick’s former Saracens teammate Jacques Burger said. “He was incredibly well prepared, but also, he knew what he had to do as a plyer to be at his best and compete against the best players, guys who have big ball carriers or big locks with incredible handling and speed.

“That’s not what Steve was. Steve was a guy who worked incredibly hard and knew what everybody possessed as a teammate, and also gave you the confidence to go out and play, be yourself and the player you are because he sees the value in what everybody can add to the team environment.

“I think that is what England needs now. They [England] come from a place now where they need a solid foundation, somebody who can take them forward, who is going to talk with a lot of knowledge and players are going to follow him and respect him for that.”

‘He was our example’

It was at Saracens that Borthwick’s coaching journey started. Taking on an assistant coaching role with the Japan national team in the latter two years of his playing career, the Cumbrian would combine with Eddie Jones, who had previously been a technical advisor with the London-club.

Retiring in 2014, Borthwick was at Jones’ side at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, celebrating the ‘Miracle of Brighton’ as the Brave Blossoms bested South Africa and then followed the Australian to the England setup, leaving an assistant coaching position with Bristol in the Championship.

Perhaps coaching was always written in the stars for Borthwick. His passion for preparation and pushing his teammates to be at their best something which Burger witnessed first-hand.

“He is definitely one of those you could see would stay in rugby afterwards and be a great coach,” Burger said. “Just by the way he speaks to people and the way he inspired people and, the person he is off the pitch.

“He’s a very respectful man, loves his family. I know we all as rugby players would go out, have a great time and we were all youngsters when we played under Steve, and Steve appreciated that part as well.

“He knew we were going out, we would party, and we were going to use this experience to the best of our will; to work hard on the pitch, but also have a great time. He was always the guy to say, ‘listen boys, go and have a great time, but tomorrow when we pitch up for training, everybody has to be good to go and ready to work hard’.

“He was our example. If you walked into the gym, Steve was there doing his preparation before and after training. In the first place, that is something you look up to as a young player; to see that the guy is actually putting in the work and is not just running the show up top. He is actually putting in the work as well. In that sense, I think Steve is going to be the right guy for the [England] job.”

That theme of leading by example is something which Mears can attest too also. It is something that he sees presently in the 43-year-old, with Mears confident that his former teammate will only ever apply himself wholeheartedly to whatever challenge he sets himself.

“For me, Borthers epitomises work ethic, and I think it doesn’t matter where you go or he goes, he has always had success and he will learn and develop and nobody becomes the ultimate England coach overnight,” Mears said.

“You have almost seen Eddie go in, do a good job and then get worse. I think that’s one thing you are not going to have with Borse, is that he is only going to ever work and work and work to try to get better, because that’s how he played his career, and that is what he has done in his management.

“If anybody had to asked what summed him up, you would say ‘work ethic’. He has always had an affinity with Australia and wanted to have a look over here, so he would go. Work ethic would be at the top of my list and then dedicated would be the next.

“He will go wherever he needs to, to learn and be the best. And that shows you, doesn’t it? Lots of people would say ‘I’m not so sure about that’, whereas Borse would go ‘yeah, I’ll do that’.”

These past two years will be remembered as the final stages of Borthwick’s apprenticeship before taking on the England job. Leaving the England setup in 2020 to take charge of a Leicester side at the lowest ebb of their slide down the Premiership.

In the space of 24 months, Borthwick turned the tables entirely and culminating in a Premiership title last June as Freddie Burns’ late drop goal meant silverware at Twickenham Stadium and an 11th domestic title for one of the most storied clubs in England.

Taking the club back to the top thanks to a clear game plan, as well as the recruitment of the correct players and coaching staff, Borthwick has continued to excel.

He’s not been afraid to muck in with hands-on coaching either, the sight of the former lock at the top of a ladder or up a flight of stairs receiving throw-ins from his hookers a regular sight and no doubt contributing to Tigers’ lethal set-piece.

Whether or not the Cumbrian was due to take the reins at Twickenham anyway following the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France will remain unknown, but now with Jones’ early dismissal it will be a challenge to turn the tide with England.

Borthwick guided Leicester Tigers to an 11th domestic title last season at Twickenham Stadium
©David Howlett

Nine games stand between the national team and the Rugby World Cup. It is a finite amount of time, and the England head coach will not have as much time with his squad as he would ideally want, the 43-year-old’s natural ability to bring everyone onto the same page perhaps his greatest asset.

“I look at England, support them a well after being so long, so every time I watch England, I will support them and I always wonder if there is a great unity,” Burger said. “There might be one, but I always wondered if that was what they were doing.

“Steve will put them in the right direction, I think they will do great. He needs everybody’s backing and I think Steve will definitely get in with everybody and make sure everybody is on the right page and just have respect for each other, talk to each other often, good feedback and that’s the most important thing as well; the communication part of it to make sure that everybody knows where they are doing and know where they stand with their head coach, and I think they will know that exactly with Steve.

“Being an English coach particularly, I think Steve will get them on board, definitely. I think Steve is the guy to get them all on board and I think as soon as everybody gets behind him, there needs to be collective attitude from everybody to get behind Steve and to really support him and the supporters as well.

“He’ll do that with the England team. He is in the right place, the right guy to do it. I have built him up so much. He owes me a drink now after making him sound so good. But he is actually an incredible human being. I have got a lot of respect for him.”