Reminders of the past are everywhere in Twickenham. Even when Steve Borthwick named his first team Six Nations as England head coach, with his own approach and approach, ghosts are inevitable.
The claustrophobic nature of rugby means past and present often collide, so when Borthwick made the final calls to those who came in and missed his first team of 36 on Sunday night, he must have been aware of the breakup. News in Australia that Eddie Jones, his predecessor, has been crowned the new Wallaby savior on a five-year contract.
Their careers are intertwined. Jones signed Borthwick as a Saracen player, he brought Borthwick to Japan’s coaching staff for the 2015 World Cup and appointed him as a full-time England assistant from 2016 to 2019. Borthwick left as manager of the Leicester Tigers, where he led them to the Premiership in 2022, and when Jones was escorted out the door after last fall’s series, it was Borthwick who took over.
On Monday morning, Borthwick was there at Twickenham on his own – the main man tasked with turning England into a team capable of winning the World Cup in just 10 months, with nine games to find the winning formula. Still, one of the first questions was about Jones.
The peer vacuum in professional sports means that Borthwick will always stand up to his predecessors. Having returned so soon, Jones still makes him an active part of the England narrative as Australia and England are likely to meet in the World Cup quarter-finals later this year if form and expectations hold up.
When Borthwick was confirmed as England manager, Jones sent him a message wishing him well. Borthwick returned the favor on Monday morning before he went to the media to unveil his first lineup.
But while Jones is now focused on his new life in Down Under, he will still be at the heart of those who live in Twickenham. But don’t expect Borthwick to think about it.
“It doesn’t concern me,” said Borthwick. “My job is to coach the England rugby team, that’s what interests me. It’s all about the team we want to build.”
If England makes a victorious start to the Six Nations, it will help divide the eras, Borthwick will draw a line under his name in this role, and others will be remembered. But the main thing is victory.
Borthwick began the announcement with a carefully orchestrated monologue about this group, referring to the group’s youth, experience, and the recurring theme of this group’s desire to “fight” for the T-shirt. He crowned Owen Farrell captain. It was eloquent and passionate, perfectly reflecting why there is a generation of players in Bath, Saracens and England who swear by Borthwick’s captaincy.
But underlying it all was a quiet urgency. Just 19 days before England face Scotland on 4 February and just a couple of weeks after Borthwick was confirmed as head coach, he has vowed to work every minute of every day to make this team the best they can be. .
A line drawn in the sand will give Borthwick some grace: Managing a team with only 10 months left before the World Cup is a brutal task, but as Michael Cheika proved in 2015 with the Wallabies, you can make an impact in that time. .
Borthwick made his first imprint by turning down Billy Vunipola, Johnny May and Jack Nowell, all players he knows well from previous lives. Then there was the injection of youth and the recall of some, like Dan Cole, who were in the international wilderness only a month or so ago. The early sign was clear: it was Borthwick’s English team.
He is usually laconic. Borthwick is not the kind of person who likes to be the center of attention. There were a few ironic moments, but nothing like Jones’ serve. Instead, it was sincere – he spoke about his first impressions of Farrell and his vice-captains Courtney Lowes and Ellis Genge. He has this proud smile that appears on his face when he talks about the different players and the options available to him. Every word, every way he answers questions confirms that this job is everything for Borthwick.
But there are also his own ghosts. He’s the one who tells them they’re either in the squad or they’re not, but he also knows the pain on the other end of the phone. His journey as England captain ended unceremoniously – back in 2010 he captained the Six Nations but suffered a knee injury and was dropped from the elite squad the following autumn.
He went from being captain to being told that he was not only excluded from the England team, but also from the then “A-team”. You feel pain still seething beneath the surface, but this will be a team ruled by more than just emotion and heartbreak. His first job, he says, is to bring “clarity.”
“The reality is that in those games of the autumn series, when there was pressure and things went wrong or faced difficulties, England didn’t have the clarity to move forward and that was something the players told me many times. “, Borthwick said. “So what do we need at the start of Six Nations? Players need clarity on how they’re going to play. I want them to fight in every competition.”
This struggle word again. With someone like Kevin Sinfield as the defensive coach, there will be no shortage of inspiration for the team. But there is also Borthwick with the fear of losing and Sinfield with the joy of victory.
“I want the team to fight – you know what I’m talking about, the way we play and approach every competition,” Borthwick said. “We will make tactical changes, we will improve tactically over time, but basically we need to get on the field against a Scottish team that comes here with a lot of confidence and we need to fight.”
In sports, a day is a long time, not to mention a month. Back in October, Jones briefed the media on his plans for the 2023 World Cup, how he sees the team’s preparation, their training camp and what next year will look like. Then the autumn series came and the plans were thwarted and Borthwick called.
Jones will be doing his own rescue job in Australia, with one eye on a possible quarter-final against his old treasurers. Borthwick has already taken the first step in his career as England manager, leaving his mark on the team.
And the line is drawn – this is Borthwick’s way, he is well aware of the pressure and expectations around him, but he will do his best. A victorious start to the Six Nations and these former floating ghosts will be banished. At least for now.