Borthwick’s England squad sees places up for grabs this Six Nations

Last Monday, England head coach Steve Borthwick unveiled his first squad in the role
©David Howlett

Steve Borthwick’s first squad announcement as England head coach was always going to be surrounded by much intrigue. 

Taking the reins from Eddie Jones with just nine games until the Rugby World Cup in France gets underway, the time is tight former Leicester Tigers boss to get England firing once again.

Following an underwhelming third-place finish last year in the Guinness Six Nations, the side will start the new campaign with a Calcutta Cup encounter with Scotland at Twickenham Stadium and Borthwick’s squad certainly has spots up for grabs.

After being at Twickenham Stadium for the Guinness Six Nations squad announcement, TRU’s Joe Harvey has taken a look at some of the key ins and outs in the England squad.

Cadan Murley & Ollie Hassell-Collins in for Jack Nowell & Jonny May

Across the Autumn Nations Series, neither Jack Nowell or Jonny May set the world alight. The two wings would not cross the whitewash in any of the three games they each took part in the gams they took part in as England’s attack once again failed to sparkle.

While potentially the victims of a failed attack, the duo have not returned to their clubs and turned the tide on their form. So far this season, Nowell has crossed the whitewash just twice and May has only done so once.

In the case of Gloucester wing May, his form has gone downhill since his torn meniscus in early 2022, the 32-year-old having been compounded by being the only member of the England party that toured Australia last summer to catch Covid-19 and spending much of the trip in a hotel room on an exercise bike.

In Cadan Murley and Ollie Hassell-Collins, Steve Bortwhick has not only selected two players still at the start of their careers, but who bring a knack for try scoring and hard work. Murley registered 19 tries in 2022 and was involved in England camps at the tail end of last year, but was not selected by Jones to gain his first cap.

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Having been able to have a period of his career uninterrupted by injury, Murley has emerged as an out-and-out threat on the wing for Harlequins, and with Nick Evans joining the international setup as attack coach, may well be a relied upon player.

London Irish’s Ollie Hassell-Collins is a plyer that was strongly linked with a move to Leicester Tigers when Borthwick was still at the helm of the Mattioli Woods Welford Road club.

A try-scoring threat, the 23-year-old has a well-rounded game which has only grown year on year, turning the wing into one of the first name on Declan Kidney’s team sheets.

“He’s a big powerful winger,” Borthwick said. “He runs fast, over 10 meters per second, and has a really good left foot. He’s very tall, he’s great in the air and he defends well – Kev has sent me a clip at least five times of Ollie defending on the edge – but his absolute super strength is ball in hand.

“When he runs, he has the ability to take them on the outside and then cut inside. He can go both ways and I think that’s a great strength. I told him the news of his selection and he was obviously very happy.

“Two minutes later he also WhatsApped me to tell me how happy he was to be in the squad. He really wants to play for England.”

The two uncapped players will principally be competing with Tommy Freeman and the versatile Max Malins for a starting slot and it seems more than possible we will see one of the youngsters make a jersey their own across the Six Nations.

Dan Cole makes his England return

Making his 95th and final appearance in 2019 in the Rugby World Cup final, Dan Cole’s last outing in an England shirt is one he would probably want to forget. Now 35, the Leicester Tigers prop has recaptured some of his best form and is one of the best-performing props in the Gallagher Premiership at present.

With Will Stuart having sustained an elbow injury in England’s loss to South Africa at Twickenham in the autumn, there was a loosehead prop position open for debate. 

Dan Cole earned his last cap for England in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final
©David Howlett

Cole’s Tigers teammate Joe Heyes is also in the squad, while Bristol Bears’ Kyle Sinckler should be expected to get the starting job.

Coming with 16 years of professional rugby and nearly a century of caps, Cole would well offer a good option for Borthwick off the bench as it gets to nip and tuck time, that experience having the potential to decide whether a game ends in victory or defeat.

“If there’s somebody in the world who could be more efficient with his words than Dan Cole, I’m yet to meet him,” Borthwick said when asked how Cole received the news of his selection.

“I got the ‘thank you’, but if you could read into a thank you – and Dan is never the most expressive, but if a thank you said a million words about his excitement being back in this team, then it would.

“We’ve spoken a couple of times in the last few weeks and Dan is desperate to be back in this squad. He has been an incredible servant to his club. And he wants to be back in an England shirt, and I can tell you how much he’s wanting to be back.”

Smithto compete with Owen Farrell while George Ford nears Sale Sharks return

Like it has been for much of the last decade, who plays fly-half for England is a major topic of conversation. At the squad announcement on Monday, Sinfield made reference to Owen Farrell being “a 10 who wants to put his body on the line” and with that statement gave some direction as to where the England captain may be playing for his country.

Often shipped to inside centre to play outside of either Marcus Smith or George Ford, it seems as though under new leadership the 31-year-old will be restored to his more favoured position.

Always looking more comfortable when in that position for his club side, it seems as though the stage is set for Farrell to wear the No. 10 jersey, with Marcus Smith the most likely to be the Saracens man’s supporting act.

It would be fair to say that we have not seen the best of the Harlequins playmaker since he made his England debut in 2021 and this and introducing Fin Smith and Farrell as direct challengers for his position could push the 23-year-old to new heights.

Northampton Saints’ Fin Smith is someone who has impressed plenty in a short career. Highly touted while in the Worcester Warriors, his midseason move to Franklin’s gardens has seen the 20-year-old take on a starting job and has thrived thus far.

Competition is by no means a bad thing, and there is added pressure in the playmaker position on the horizon. After an Achilles injury in the Premiership final last season, George Ford has not yet appeared for new club Sale Sharks, but has reportedly made a significant impact off the field for Alex Sanderson’s side and may well return this weekend in the Heineken Champions Cup.

Just 29, Ford could still have a lot to offer England and along with Earl, was one of the most consistent performers in the Premiership as Leicester ultimately won the competition. Speaking on Ford, as well as full-back Henry Arundell, Borthwick said that the fly-half had chosen to stay with his club and “be available for selection the following week”.

“I know how keen he is to be involved,” Sinfield, who saw George the weekend prior, said. “I bumped into him on Saturday, actually. Desperate to get back fit. Desperate to be back playing, and I think that’s the starting point for him.

“I mentioned before the internal competition. You throw George into the mix as well, there’s a wonderful combination of fly-halves there who all bring slightly different things, but who can massively add to where we’re going.”

Elliot Daly, Joe Marchant & Dan Kelly to add to midfield debate

With the potential of Owen Farrell vacating the inside centre jersey, there is likely to be a new look midfield this Six Nations. Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi are the sole survivors from the previous squad selection and will have the recalled Elliot Daly and Joe Marchant to contend with for the outside centre slot.

Having been playing more at his preferred slot for Saracens, Daly has been nothing short of mesmeric, but a return to full-back for the 57-cap back saw him bag a hat-trick against Lyon in the Champions Cup.

That red-hot form could hopefully be translated, and in Marchant there is another player in form that will certainly push for selection. Since his move to Stade Francais was announced, the Harlequins back has had the weight of the world leave his shoulders and has been one of the top performers for Tabai Matson.

Tuilagi is not limited to just playing at outside centre either. Capable of playing at inside centre, the main opponent for that position will be Leicester’s Dan Kelly. A former Loughborough University player who became a mainstay under Borthwick with Tigers, the 21-year-old recently having returned from injury and already made an impact.

Coming with an extremely rounded skillset, playing outside of Farrell or a Smith, Kelly could well be the answer to a midfield that has seem unbalanced for the longest time. With a game against Ospreys on Friday night before going to England camp, it would be well worth your time watching everything the one cap midfielder does.

Plenty of back-row debate with Billy Vunipola out

When it comes to the back-row, that’s maybe where the most intrigue lies. In his media briefing on Monday, defence coach Kevin Sinfield was enthused about a number of players who ‘all hit’.

Add to this that Billy Vunipola was left out of the squad altogether and the hamstring injury to Tom Curry, and we will see an entirely different three that started against South Africa.

One thing we certainly know about Borthwick is the value he puts on the set-piece. Seeing the former England captain atop a ladder receiving throw-ins from his hookers has become commonplace throughout his coaching career to date, and that particular focus on the lineout has resulted in the 43-year-old selecting a rangy, explosive blindside flanker.

Across his time at Mattioli Woods Welford Road, Ollie Chessum emerged as the player that would flourish under Borthwick, the 22-year-old capable of operating on the flank as well as at lock forward, that versatility another major tick in his box.

But with only five caps to his name to date, Chessum’s experience pales in contrast to that of Northampton Saints’ Courtney Lawes. Set to win his 100th England cap this campaign, the 33-year-old is a quite frankly frightening option wherever he plays, and with the added responsibility of being names vice-captain is likely to be a pivotal figure for his country.

Courtney Lawes was named as a vice captain by Borthwick and may well get a starting role back after returning from a head injury
©David Howlett

“I spoke to Phil Dowson a few days ago, the Northampton Director of Rugby, and he told me about the moment Courtney made his comeback appearance,” Borthwick said, “he said Courtney came to the touchline and the game paused, all the opposition players turned and looked at the touchline, all the Northampton players turned and thousands of people around the ground turned and looked at the touchline and everybody fell silent and he said he thought he saw the opposition bench shrink a little bit, he saw his team grow a little bit, the supporters, from being silent, grew louder and louder, because Courtney was on the touchline.

“We are very privileged to have Courtney in our team, we are very fortunate to have in the leadership team three quality players.”

At openside flanker, the reigning Premiership Rugby Player of the Season is back in the conversation. Ben Earl had a stunning season for Saracens as they reached the final at Twickenham, the 25-year-old having last been capped in 2021 and overlooked by Jones.

After joining Toulouse, Jack Willis will offer stern competition for that blindside flankers’ jersey. A player who tore the Premiership apart with his work at the breakdown just a couple of years ago, Willis will certainly be in the conversation, as will Ben Curry who Borthwick says was going to be a part of this England squad.

Finally, the No. 8 slot is where things are perhaps more straightforward. Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds are the two players fighting it out for a starting spot, Simmonds having been utilised by England across the Autumn Nations Series but has seen his involvements limited with club side Exeter Chiefs.

Dombrandt, in contrast, has been regularly utilised by his club this season, and would have no doubt been frustrated by having had to watch on over the end-of-year internationals. An explosive and potentially game changing option, the Harlequins skipper will be hoping to impress next week at Pennyhill Park.

Hooker spot up for grabs with Luke Cowan-Dickie injured

As Luke Cowan-Dickie is currently out with an ankle injury, there is room for movement with who is the replacement hooker, at least. 

With Jack Walker and George McGuigan without any international caps to their name, it is 72-cap Jamie George who is the understandable favourite to get a starting role, his vast experience speaking for itself.

Each of the other two options have had consistent involvements in England training camps, but neither is yet to gain a full cap. 

Both have been top performers in the Premiership, with McGuigan having crossed the whitewash 15 times in the league last season and seven times this campaign, although he is yet to be the beneficiary of Gloucester’s lineout since his midseason move to Kingsholm.

Since moving to Harlequins in 2021, Walker has established himself as a Premiership regular. His efforts saw him regularly involved in England camps, the 26-year-old touring with England to Australia last July but was never named in a matchday 23.

This is one of those selections which Borthwick will purely rely on his gut for. Having spent so much time with his hookers while at Leicester Tigers to get the lineout, the coach will be looking for attributes which he values in each of them in order to find the two that will play a major part in his England team.