Steve Borthwick: ‘I’ll coach this team my way’

©David Howlett

It didn’t feel like Steve Borthwick had just taken on the biggest job in rugby. He sat at Twickenham looking as though the weight of the world wasn’t on his shoulders, smiled and answered every question directed at him.

Perhaps one of the reasons for that is having seen the 43-year-old deflect consistent questions about his future, a future we now know lays with England. Having consistently maintained that his primary focus was with Leicester Tigers, Monday saw the start of Borthwick’s new role as England’s head coach.

He ended his reign at Mattioli Woods Welford Road with a 23-16 victory over Clermont in the Heineken Champions Cup, but now both he and Kevin Sinfield will be looking to a Calcutta Cup clash in early February as the stat of their tenures with England.

In his opening statements, RFU CEO Bill Sweeney revealed that Borthwick had been at the top of England’s shopping list for a while. There is little wonder why, with the Cumbrian having served as an assistant coach to Eddie Jones with both Japan and England between 2012 and 2020 before heading to Leicester and winning the Gallagher Premiership earlier this year with the side.

“There has been this process that has been ongoing in terms of post 20223 World Cup, then just under two weeks ago when the decision was made that Eddie was moving on, Leicester were contacted and I was contacted, the Tuesday or Wednesday, so that process has been ongoing since then,” Borthwick said. “Everything was confirmed Friday night last week. I signed the contract.”

Between Monday and the start of the Six Nations there are 47 days. It is a finite amount of time in which Borthwick must nail his coaching selections and create an identity for whichever squad he selects for the first campaign of his tenure.

It is an even shorter amount of time when you consider that there are just nine games between now and the Rugby World Cup in France. Kicking off in September and with just nine months to get his new team on the same page, there is much to do.

A side booed off the field following their loss to South Africa at the end of November, Borthwick is confident that there is enough enthusiasm among the players to be successful.

“You know me well enough to know I put deep thought into things and I looked at all the different factors,” Borthwick said when asked about whether or not nine months was enough time to make his team competitive enough for the Rugby World Cup.

“That was certainly a consideration of timing, I don’t think anyone thinks the timing is ideal. I also think there is an incredible excitement around this among the players.

“There is a group of players that is very experienced and maybe this World Cup cycle is their last opportunity at a World Cup. Then you have got a group of young players, particularly looking at some of those outside backs we have got coming through, I think the potential of the team is enormous.

“There are certainly some things that need to be acted on, we can all see that, but with that amount of potential that is exciting.”

Creating winning teams is an art. It is one that Borthwick perfected at Leicester across his two and a half years later. His process on the face of it is obscure, and like with icebergs, only so much of it could be seen.

With Leicester at the foot of the Premiership table and safe from relegation as a result of Saracens’ enforced relegation, the 43-year-old gave all his new players chances. His reasoning for which was relatively simple; there was nothing to lose.

That and the very nature of rugby’s return during the pandemic helped him find those gems that formed the foundation of his team. Freddie Steward emerged as a star, as did Dan Kelly, Ollie Chessum, Jack van Poortvliet and Guy Porter, all of whom are now capped for England, while Tommy Reffell is a Wales regular, as Jasper Wiese is a fully fledged South Africa international.

Then recruiting the likes of Julian Montoya to the pack ahead of their title tilt, Borthwick has used a strong set piece and the strengths of his players to create a side capable to winning on any given weekend and it is something that he would certainly like to take to England.

“I certainly do,” Borthwick, when asked about what players he would like to build England around, said. “And I have got that picture clearly in my mind. There are some variables that chance, we’ve got 47 days and things can change, as we all know, as you get nearer Six Nations people take knocks, best laid plans can alter.

“I’ll refer you to 2017 Lions. The ability to bring players together. One thing I observed in that experience was players coming together from four different countries, multiple teams within those four different countries, with incredible strengths, and put together a plan of how the team is going to play, and really quick to then compete with the best in the world [New Zealand].

“I saw that done incredibly well in 2017. Ultimately, time is limited. But I think we do have some top-quality players and my job is to get them on the field and clear on what they need to do.”

With only Sinfield named among the assistants coaching group at present, it is unclear what the future has in store for Richard Cockerill, Martin Gleeson, Matt Proudfoot and Brett Hodgson.

Saying that he is looking to put together the best coaching panel possible with the full backing from the RFU, it is fully expected that more press releases will be filtering through from Twickenham in the coming weeks.

Things like captaincy will also have to wait, Borthwick looking to get his group together first before deciding who takes on that metaphorical armband, perhaps the key question hanging over the 43-year-old’s head being how like his mentor Jones he actually is.

“I’ll coach this team my way,” Borthwick said. “I was asked a question in 2016; would you want your boys to be coached by you? And that makes you think. Would you want your boys coached by you?

“I have two little boys, and in 2016 the answer to that question, I would unequivocally say no. But it made me think over a period of time how I would want someone to coach my boys. I would want them to care for them and love them, but also want to demand from them and help get the best out of them.

“To push them, show how good they could be and how far they can go. At the same time, to support the and when they have something go wrong, you help them and lift them up.

“Gradually over a period of time it has changed a bit so now when I ask myself the question ‘would I want my boys coached by me?’, I say yeah, sometimes. I think I have improved.

“I will lead my way and coach in an authentic way. I want to be authentic with you guys, I will speak honestly and that is the way I will be with my players.”

Borthwick’s tangent to talk about his family is an unexpected one. For the past several years, his stony demeanour has been confined to the stock response of ‘we’re focussing on one game at a time’ or, more recently, ‘we’re here to talk about Leicester Tigers’.

When talking about his loved ones, Borthwick plays with his wedding ring. It’s a subconscious act for him, talking about his personal life perhaps still a nerve-wracking thing as he takes this first move into being the face of a nation.

On the England Rugby livestream a little earlier in the day, Borthwick spoke about his eldest son, Hunter, wearing an Australia shirt. It was in some ways that is at the heart of his message of wanting to create pride for England supporters again and wanting to hear Twickenham roar like it used to.

With feeling and family a consistent thread throughout the day, how Borthwick’s family reacted to the proposition of taking on the England job becomes the topic of conversation, the 43-year-old’s sons again at the heart of things.

“I sat them down, the two boys, and told them I was thinking of leaving Leicester Tigers and going to coach England,” Borthwick said.

“I said 'what do you think, how do you feel about it?' And it was quiet so Hunter [nine] said to me 'okay, but you've got to pick lots of Leicester Tigers players' so I asked him who would be number one and he said, ‘can you get Tom Reffell from Wales!’

“Chase [seven] is younger and he looked a bit sad. He said 'I like Leicester Tigers' so I said you can keep supporting Leicester Tigers and he has a Leicester Tiger that goes on the bed next to him. 

“It is named after Harry Potter because Harry is his favourite player. He said can I get an England toy to sit next to Harry Potter, so I said yeah, and he was a lot happier.”

Thankfully due to his new position, Borthwick can get 20 per cent off at the England shop, so the new toy will probably be forthcoming. It buttoned up a day where there was lots of optimism for England, a realism from their head coach about the challenge at hand, while showing a new side to himself altogether.