The ‘most interesting piece’ in the Borthwick puzzle

It’s good to have the worst-kept secret in rugby out of the bag but the appointment of Steve Borthwick as the England head coach is just the first box of many that need to be ticked in the coming weeks. Borthwick is the most hard-working and meticulous of men but one of his great strengths in his short career as a head honcho has been his ability to surround himself with the best caliber of people and that work has only just begun.

Confirmation that Kevin Sinfield is joining him as defense coach is absolutely crucial, with Brett Hodgson presumably leaving before he has even started, but it is the England attack that has looked the worst part of their game for the past couple of years.

It’s this appointment of an attack coach that will be the most interesting piece of the puzzle and it’s hard to see the present incumbent Martin Gleeson staying on with the name of Sam Vesty being touted most vociferously at the moment.

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Vesty has worked wonders with the Northampton attack in recent years. They play a really attractive brand of rugby but whether that can marry up with the brilliant basics Borthwick has spoken about and his philosophy on the game is debatable.

Anyone who has watched Leicester over the past couple of seasons won’t be expecting a particularly expansive game plan and will be expecting plenty of intelligent kicking but the Tigers have played winning rugby and if England does the same, everyone will be happy.

Press conferences will be quieter, more mundane affairs and although it was clear Borthwick did feel the need to show a slightly different side at his unveiling, you know you are not going to get the same sound bites as under Eddie Jones. That could become an issue if things aren’t going well but if he gets things right on the pitch, with just a little more engagement from players as well as coaches, the inspiration and reconnection with fans that he has been speaking about should come naturally .

We know Borthwick is a Jones disciple having worked under him a few years ago, but it was good to hear him acknowledge that England are not in the top three in the world in any facet of the game. He also emphasized that the focus will always be on the next game rather than the next World Cup.

Jones was a very prescriptive head coach and Borthwick will want to put his own stamp on this team but he is cut from a similar cloth. No stone will be left unturned but anyone expecting to see tries being run in from deep left, right and center are likely to be disappointed.

Borthwick was spot on about the need to get back to basics, though. France are rightly getting a lot of plaudits after winning every Test in 2022 and they have scored some excellent tries along the way, but the reason for their success is the implementation of a simple and effective game plan that has allowed their talented players to shine.

England’s players have looked confused and their game plan muddled of late and I fully expect that to change straight away. Marcus Smith may still be injured as preparations for the Guinness Six Nations begin but I feel we will see Owen Farrell revert to fly-half anyway.

I said ahead of the autumn that Farrell was the form man and it should be one or other starting now and nothing we have seen from Borthwick so far suggests that Smith will be the player he entrusts with putting his ideas into action.

The Harlequins No10 is enormously talented and he will have a role to play off the bench under Borthwick, hopefully with the potential to become the starter in due course. But I can’t see him starting against Scotland in February.

The England captain’s armband has been passed from pillar to post a bit recently as well and that decision will be a fascinating one. I can see it being Ellis Genge’s time now, assuming Borthwick is n’t holding a grudge over his infamous hug di lui with Pat Lam this time last year.

Genge led Leicester to the Gallagher Premiership title under Borthwick in June and has gradually become a standout leader in the England environment as well without having the armband bestowed upon him.

It is the assistant coach choices that will be the most intriguing, though, and RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney has openly said that “within the confines of a certain reasonableness”, Borthwick will be backed to bring in who he wants.

Whether Leicester’s head of physical performance Aled Walters eventually fits within those confines we will have to wait and see but he doesn’t at the moment and we know he has had a massive impact at Tigers as well as having won the World Cup with South Africa in 2019.

As it stands, Sinfield is the only man the RFU have been able to announce alongside Borthwick and the fact he wasn’t physically by the new head coach’s side for his unveiling because he was attending Doddie Weir’s memorial service says a lot about him.

From his playing career and coaching ability to, more importantly, the superhuman fundraising efforts and physical challenges he has undertaken in the name of MND research, you can’t help but be inspired by him and he is certain to galvanize players.

There might not be an instant injection of free flowing rugby but the unveiling of Borthwick does bring with it a renewed sense of optimism and a fresh start after a poor couple of years for England.

The men in white have only won one of their last five Tests against the Scots, who they face in the new head coach’s first game in charge in just over six weeks’ time, so nobody should be getting ahead of themselves – but home games against Scotland and Italy is as good a start as Borthwick could wish for.

A trip to Cardiff follows before the top two teams in the northern hemisphere await in the final couple of rounds. By that point, England fans might just feel able to dream again.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and the RFU ripped their plans up a fortnight ago but the process of rebuilding has now begun and the hard work starts here. There is nobody more hard-working than Borthwick and if his substance-over-style approach brings winning rugby back to Twickenham, then he will achieve his aim of getting England fans roaring again.

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