England’s new era – No Tuilagi, a Smith-Farrell axis and giving players a chance

Steve Borthwick named five Leicester Tigers players in his first England squad
©David Howlett

After announcing his first England squad ahead of the team’s Guinness Six Nations opener against Scotland at Twickenham Stadium, Steve Borthwick once again appeared calm and collected.

Being the head coach of England is something which the Cumbrian holds in high regard, his maintained desire to get Twickenham roaring once again something which the 43-year-old has maintained since his appointment in December.

Immediately it is clear that England’s new figurehead is not afraid to make a hard choice, leaving out Manu Tuilagi of the match day 23, instead opting for a backline that has plenty more agility than punch with Harlequins’ Joe Marchant amongst its ranks.

You add to that a 10-12 axis of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell – the same combination we saw across the Autumn Nations Series – and the selection of players who seemed to have no future under the axed Eddie Jones, and there is certainly intrigue.

Not afraid to give players a chance, Borthwick will give London Irish wing Ollie Hassell-Collins a first Test cap, the wing once courted by Borthwick during his time with Gallagher Premiership champions Leicester Tigers, now getting a chance in international rugby.

There is a clear Leicester presence in the squad too, as Ollie Chessum gets the nod at lock, his former Tigers captain Ellis Genge is a vice-captain, while the veteran Dan Cole is named as the replacement tighthead prop.

It has been a build-up marred by injury. Before the group even gathered in Surrey, vice-captain Courtney Lawes was ruled out with a calf injury, Dan Kelly with a calf issue, Elliot Daly with a hamstring injury and then Henry Slade.

Among other things, it has left the midfield looking a little light; perhaps explaining why Borthwick has turned back to a somewhat tried and tested method with his captain, Farrell, playing outside of Smith to kick things off.

Since his appointment on Christmas week, Borthwick has been hurtled toward this first Test, and it’s one that England need to win after having not lifted the Calcutta Cup since 2020. 

A midfield with no Manu

What garnered the most attention on Thursday was Manu Tuilagi’s omission. A player who England fans have something of a fascination with, due to his injury issues over the tears, the Sale Sharks midfielder has achieved something of a mythical status.

Often in the starting line-up when fit, when reports emergeny on Wednesday that the 31-year-old would not be involved in Borthwick’s squad altogether, it certainly set the tone for this new age.

Taking the outside centre slot instead of Tuilagi is Harlequins’ Joe Marchant. Destined for Stade Francais for the new season, the 26-year-old has had one of his best professional seasons date and has certainly found a fan in England’s new head coach and will have Bath’s Ollie Lawrence waiting in the wing.

“We have got good players there,” Borthwick said. “Joe has played really well, his ability to find space with the ball in hand, the way he runs, he glides through space, which I think is super.

“He also covers so much ground on the edge defensively, he has been excellent in that regard. Ollie Lawrence, who is on the bench has done so well, I have been impressed with him this season ball-in-hand and defensively.

“He is a guy who can break the line, he is a guy who can find space, a guy who can make impact tackles and jackals at the breakdown. There we have got two really good players. Manu is a tremendous player, but it was a decision we would go with these two.”

Marchant will be just one of the livewires in a backline that has two playmakers amongst it. While Ollie Hassell-Collins, Max Malins and Freddie Steward will be waiting for opportunities to strike, it will largely be up to Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell to make the magic happen.

So far, their combination has not quite bore fruit. Bar a fairly mesmeric final 10 minutes in the final 10 minutes against the All Blacks last November, the pair have struggled to make it work.

Borthwick indicated that the selection was in part due to the short preparation time he and his new group have had, but after two weeks together under the 43-year-old’s guidance and the influence of attack coach, Nick Evans, England’s head coach believes that the pair are in a good place to take on Scotland.

“I have seen two players who think deeply about rugby and spend a lot of time together,” Borthwick said. “I see two players; I see a partnership starting to develop there. I think it’s the right combination for this week.

“We’ve said this will just be a starting block. This will just be a base from which we grow, as we put together 10 days, 11 days, a base plan. 

As we put together this base plan and the players have the clarity of how we’ll go about the game, I see Marcus and Owen understanding each other more, and understanding what we are trying to do. I see that’s got better each day.”

Desperation to play for England

One notable thing about Steve Borthwick’s squad is the addition of players who saw their opportunities limited by Eddie Jones. 

This includes the likes of Marchant, who believed his best chance of catching the eye was spending some time abroad, while Max Malins, Ollie Lawrence and Lewis Ludlam were rarely utilised.

Jack Walker, who looks set to win his debut as a replacement hooker from the bench, was even on tour with England all summer in Australia but didn’t get one second of game time.

“So I’ll rewind about five weeks, and some of the phone calls that I had, where I started speaking to players, going and meeting players or ringing players,” Borthwick said.

“The players that were on my list that included a lot of players what hadn’t had many opportunities recently. And I listened to them, watched them and you could see these players are just so desperate to be in the England shirt.

“When you’re on the phone to them, you could hear it down the phone, you could see it in their body when I met with them face to face. That, I think, is exciting. For me it is incredibly rewarding.

“You know how passionate I am about the England rugby team, and to see the players just wanting to be in the England shirt is fantastic. 

“So, the layers have got an opportunity, and that’s what they wanted, is an opportunity, and now they have got to take that opportunity. And I back them to do it, by bringing all their strengths onto the pitch.”

Much like his tenure at Leicester Tigers, Borthwick simply wants his players to do whatever it is that they do best. It was a winning formula, and one which has all the capabilities to work if the cards are in favour for the England coaching group.

In his closing quotes of the day, Borthwick said: “Every player has their role to play in this team, every player knows their job.”

The question he was asked actually had nothing to do with being prepared. It was to do with the ‘finishers’ tag that had become famous under Jones being scrapped in favour of the more traditional ‘replacements’.

Whatever the case, it is clear that Borthwick has confidence in the players he has selected. That confidence for most will inspire them, the faith shown in them to represent their country in the first game of a new era having plenty of potential to build the foundations for a successful start on Saturday afternoon.

England Starting XV

Freddie Steward; Max Malins, Joe Marchant, Owen Farrell (C), Ollie Hassell-Collins*; Marcus Smith, Jack van Poortvliet; Ellis Genge (VC), Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Ollie Chessum, Lewis Ludlam, Ben Curry, Alex Dombrandt


Jack Walker*, Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole, Nick Isiekwe, Ben Earl, Ben Youngs, Ollie Lawrence, Anthony Watson