England are evolving - and it feels like they are now in the vision of Steve Borthwick

The selections made by Steve Borthwick indicate this is an England squad with his vision attached to it
©David Howlett

It all felt a bit different - but in an optimistic sort of way.

Twelve months ago, Steve Borthwick was trying to piece together what ‘his England’ was going to look like in a very short space of time.

After the departure of Eddie Jones, the England boss had the task of bringing cohesion to a team that had lost their way with the 2023 Six Nations right around the corner.

It proved to be, perhaps predictably, easier said than done with England finishing fourth and recording just two victories.

But now with those experiences - along with leading a side at a World Cup - under his belt, Wednesday’s squad announcement for the forthcoming Six Nations had the feel of a fresh start about it as well as a sense of Borthwick beginning to mould his own team.

By his own admission, the England boss has addressed what is needed for the here and now but he is also thinking ahead to how his side can evolve throughout this new World Cup cycle: "Yes and I have said this before that plans effectively end up being useless but the planning process is essential,” Borthwick said when asked whether he had one eye on the future.

“Do I have the next four years mapped out? Yes, but without question understanding what’s important is this Six Nations Championship. When we go into camp next Tuesday night and start training on Wednesday, all that matters is Italy [England's first match]. Then we go to the next game.”

While it can be argued Borthwick’s selections have been influenced by a series of factors including retirements, injuries, players moving to France - and in the case of Owen Farrell stepping away from the international game - there is some vibrancy in the squad which has been whisked together with a smattering of wily, old campaigners combined with those who have gained some valuable experience over the last calendar year.

It seems like it is a recipe that has been thought out, not one where Borthwick’s hand has been completely forced.

“They are all there to be in contention for the 23 against Italy in a couple of weeks’ time," added Borthwick, and that will be music to the ears of the 36-man squad, especially the seven uncapped players who will be hungry to impress.

Immanuel Feyi-Waboso (Exeter), Chandler Cunningham-South (Harlequins), Ethan Roots (Exeter Chiefs), Oscar Beard (Harlequins), Fraser Dingwall (Northampton Saints), Tom Roebuck (Sale Sharks) and Fin Smith (Northampton Saints) have all shone in the Premiership this term and Borthwick was glowing about the Exeter duo in particular.

“I’ll give you an example – Ethan Roots. I remember coaching against the Ospreys in Europe, and saw this player and thought ‘he’s a really good player’. 

“Effectively then I thought not too much more of it. Then we were in Le Touquet and I was walking through the dining room and saw Richard Hill at his computer watching the Premiership Rugby Cup games.

“He pulled me over and said ‘Come and watch this player for the next two minutes.’ I watched him with Hilly, and it was outstanding – the work rate, physicality he brought to it. Hilly said to me there ‘track this guy’. If Richard Hill tells me to track a back-row forward, I’m listening.”

On Feyi-Waboso, Borthwick added: “Manny's really impressed us, not just on the pitch. We can all see the power he brings, the speed he brings. He finds a way through contact when there doesn't appear to be a way through there.

"When I rang him yesterday (Tuesday) and spoke to him yesterday evening, he said he had just finished his university studies (at Exeter University) for the day.

“I said 'I'm announcing my Six Nations squad tomorrow and naming you in it'. I could sense that excitement and buzz down the phone, he was thrilled.”

In terms of Feyi-Waboso, the fact he was lining up for Taunton Titans in National One last season to now potentially starting on the wing against Italy on February 3rd, is perhaps the clearest sign of how eager Borthwick is for his side - in his vision - to take the next step.

And leading all of this from a player's perspective will be Jamie George. The Saracens hooker - who signed a two-year extension with the Premiership champions on Wednesday having been offered a hybrid contract by the Rugby Football Union - was named as England’s new captain in the absence of club teammate Farrell.

Capped 85 times by his country, from the outside, George did seem like an obvious candidate to hand the baton to but perhaps there is a more calculated reason behind the decision.

In the past, Borthwick has spoken about turning to other sports in order to soak up knowledge which he can then apply to his own thinking and on Wednesday, he highlighted the influence of Manchester City legend and current Burnley manager Vincent Kompany. When he departed the Etihad, his replacement as captain was determined by a player vote devised by Pep Guardiola.

“I've recently been reading a lot about football management,” Borthwick said. “One guy I've picked up a lot from is Tony Pulis, and that's been on record before.

“I was asked this morning by somebody, ‘Have you given Jamie any advice?’ And the one thing I said is: 'I want you to lead as you,’ and that one year, many many years from now, you will reflect and want to say you led as you. 

“I'd say during my time as England captain, I don't think I led as me. I want him to bring all his personality to it. 

“Prior to the World Cup, we did this study. It was a network analysis, for want of a better term. It was actually an idea given to me by Vincent Kompany. 

“You basically give the players a series of questions and then put the top three players you turn to in this situation. So they could put their top three players in. What it effectively produces is this network of how everybody connects, and who connects with who the most.

"And you could sit here and you could tell in different elements - in tactical elements, high-pressure circumstances, off the field - you connect with different people. 

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“So I had this Incredible amount of information, and it said ‘I know where people turn to’. You'd be able to see and tell me who they turn to, who Ellis (Genge) and Maro (Itoje) would turn to and the number of people who connected with Jamie George is immense. His ability, across the whole squad, to understand him, I knew it was very good.

“That stood out to me as being exceptional so I think he's a great people person. He's got a positive nature. There's always a smile very close in the way he is and I want him to bring all of that into this role as the captain.”

George’s demeanour, influence and experience are all attributes which have led to him becoming Borthwick’s skipper and when you throw in the likes of Dan Cole, Joe Marler, Maro Itoje, George Ford and Danny Care, there are clear leaders within the 36-man group mixed in with those who are wet behind the ears and champing at the bit.

Notably, Billy Vunipola (Saracens) and Kyle Sinckler aren’t involved - with the latter reportedly set to leave Bristol Bears to join Toulon - but there were recalls for players such as Henry Slade (Exeter Chiefs), Ben Spencer and Beno Obano (Bath), Northampton duo Tommy Freeman and George Furbank as well as Harlequins' Alex Dombrandt.

From that perspective then, it isn't fully ‘out with the old and in with the new.' Seventeen of the 34 players who went to the World Cup have also been retained but whether it has been by design or by judgement - or a combination of both - there does seem to be a sense of a fresh beginning for Borthwick and for England.