Exclusive - Jason Leonard on why England will be ‘massively excited’ for Six Nations kick-off

Across a 14-year international career Jason Leonard won 114 caps for England

With England’s opening match of the 2023 Guinness Six Nations against Scotland coming up on Saturday, Rugby World Cup winning Jason Leonard believes that Steve Borthwick’s group of players will be “massively excited” about getting back onto the pitch.

Plenty of water has passed under the bridge since England’s final game of the Autumn Nations Series, the side booed off the field at Twickenham Stadium following their 13-27 lost to South Africa in what transpired to be Eddie Jones’s final game as England head coach.  

Dismissing Jones was inherently a risk. There are just nine games between England and their opening game of the Rugby World Cup later this year, the task for a new head coach immense with such a short time to get the house in order.

This included the appointment of Kevin Sinfield as defence coach, the rugby league great following Borthwick from Leicester Tigers, while Nick Evans has joined as attack coach from Harlequins and Richard Cockerill is the sole survivor of the Jones regime as scrum coach.

Saturday afternoon will see the nation play their first game under the guidance of Borthwick, a Calcutta Cup encounter a baptism of fire for a side looking to turn a corner just months after having been at their lowest ebb.

“I think the autumn internationals were very disappointing, for the fans, but you could see it in the players, in their body language and everything like that,” Leonard told TRU.

“Everything was a bit down in that aspect. I think with a new head coach coming in, who has been there before as a player, has represented his country, captained his country; there is a lot of knowledge he can pass on to players, but he’s also technically a very astute coach.

“Everyone says that, everyone who has worked with him or played rugby with him as a coach, they all say how fantastic he is. 

“I think there is a bit of that, and some of the other people he has brought in, someone like a Sinfield, those sorts of guys will just add excitement to the players, because everyone was so disappointed with the autumns.

“They will be massively excited about this Six Nations and, also, will be keen to impress. It is a new coaching group, you want to get in, you have got a World Cup just down the road.

“I think it is a perfect opportunity for the England players to put a marker down and play some great rugby.”

Without having even played a game, Borthwick and his new look coaching staff have already had headaches to contend with. 

This includes injury to vice-captain Courtney Lawes, a hamstring injury for Elliot Daly, a thigh injury for Dan Kelly and knocks to hookers Jamie George and George McGuigan.

As a result, there are places up for grabs in the starting line-up and will make the 43-year-old’s first squad selection on Thursday all the more intriguing.

A week ago was the first time that the England squad gathered together in Surrey to step out onto the training paddock, a crash course on how this ‘new England’ will look duly following.

Last week, back-row Sam Simmonds spoke the “clarity” which Borthwick and his new coaching staff have provided the playing group with in a relatively short space of time.

There is already an indication that England are going to go back to basics. It will in some ways be reminiscent of Borthwick’s arrival at Leicester Tigers as head coach, the emphasis on the set-piece, pick-and-go and rucking taking the side back to the top of the Gallagher Premiership.

“I think Steve will go back a little tiny bit,” Leonard said. “I don’t think a massive lot was broken with this team and how they play. It just seemed there was a disconnect in the autumns, that we didn’t really see the team actually progressing in terms of performance.

“What I think Steve will do, he will go back to basics, you have got scrums, you have got lineouts, defence. 

You have seen in the Premiership at his moment in time, a lot of very good, exciting games and I think he will want to select those players that have been playing well in the Premiership and replicate that on the international level.

“It really is a case of how ambitious they want to be to start with. Because you need cohesion to be able to play like that. Now, have they had enough time in the leadup to the Six Nations? That will be a big question.

“I like everything that has come out of the camp at this moment, what the players are saying, and it all bodes well with the opening match next week. It is going to be a tough championship. It is going to be a great Six Nations.”

When it comes to picking players on form, Leonard is particularly enthused about the inclusion of tighthead prop Dan Cole. 

Recalled to the England squad after a three and a half year without a call-up, the 35-year-old has excelled in the Premiership and was a cornerstone as Leicester won the Premiership last season.

With 95 caps worth of Test experience for England, Cole is at the opposite end of the spectrum to the likes of Cadan Murley and Ollie Hassell-Collins, who are both vying for their international debuts.

All the build-up will culminate this Saturday when Scotland come to Twickenham. Gregor Townsend’s side have had much the better of things in recent years, the Scots having lifted the trophy four of the last five encounters between the two nations.

While recent form can be an indicator of how this fixture may go, Leonard – who won 13 of his 14 Calcutta Cup encounters – believes that while Scotland will be confident coming to West London, England’s focus will largely be internal as they set off in a new direction.

“I think Scotland are not scared of coming to England anymore now, because they have had success there,” Leonard said.

“There was a number of years, decades, they would come to Twickenham and they never won. I think it all bodes well for a great game.

“There is no hiding place for this England team because of their poor performances in the autumns. They are going to be scrutinised no matter what.

“You can’t run away from that fact, you can’t avoid it, because that is the case. I think Steve being Steve, because he is very pragmatic, will go ‘why do we want to run away from that? Why do we want to avoid it?’, it is what it is. You have got to deal with it.

“The pressure is already up there somewhere; you have just got to deal with it. This is part of the way of life in that aspect. And if you start winning games and you start putting in performances, which is the most important thing.

“Forget about a win, as a player you want to go out and perform to the best of your abilities and from one to 15, if you all perform to the best of your abilities, you are hoping that a win comes hand in hand with it.

“I think what we saw in the autumns, we didn’t see the best performances by the players, you didn’t see the best performances by the team, hence the reasons why we were all very disappointed by the results.

“Steve has got some great players, some old heads coming back in, but some very young exciting players. He and his coaching team will be rubbing their hands going ‘we can’t wait’.

“That’s the thing, it has re-energised the group, rejuvenated this group and hopefully we will see that on the pitch.”

Jason Leonard, who spoke on behalf of investment platform Saxo and their partnership with Harlequins.