Sport

SIX NATIONS RUGBY

The only way is up for England as the Borthwick era begins

The only way is up for England as the Borthwick era begins
Steve Borthwick, the England head coach, looks on during the England training session held at Pennyhill Park on 30 January 2023 in Bagshot, England. (Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

England have the perfect opportunity to get their new era under coach Steve Borthwick off to an uplifting start when they host Scotland on Saturday, the first match of a Six Nations draw that has fallen perfectly to begin the revival.

England follow up with a home game against Italy next week and then a trip to Wales. Should they get three wins under their belt, they will host holders France with a level of confidence palpably missing from the last two wretched campaigns, before signing off away in Ireland.

An improvement on third and fifth-placed finishes in the last two seasons already looks likely, and with the players at Borthwick’s disposal and a new, positive atmosphere in the camp, talk of the title no longer looks fanciful.

After decades of dominating the oldest fixture in international rugby, England have stumbled badly against the Scots in recent years, losing three and drawing one of the last five meetings. 

However, there is already a palpable sense of confidence as Borthwick, and his inspirational defence coach Kevin Sinfield, set about “restoring the pride in the shirt and the connection with the fans”. 

Supporters were at breaking point when Twickenham resounded to the rare sound of the hosts being booed off the pitch after they completed a poor November series with a meek defeat by South Africa.

That proved the final straw for the RFU, who promptly sacked Eddie Jones – one thing that will be guaranteed under the new coaching structure is that the players will be giving their absolute all at every moment.

Jones’ obsession with the World Cup, and his constant selectorial whims, eventually filtered through as a message that nothing really mattered before they got to France in September.

Borthwick takes a different view. 

“My job is to make sure the England team goes on to the pitch prepared to be able to find a way to win that game. And then we’ll do next week and then the next week and the next week,” he said last week. “I am very clear on that. Very clear.”

He has already restored some clarity to squad selection, bringing the likes of Joe Marchant, Max Malins and Ben Earl back into the fold after Jones cut them adrift, despite outstanding club form.

He has also recalled 35-year-old prop Dan Cole, who last played in the 2019 World Cup final defeat by South Africa. 

For a former lock and England captain, Borthwick is horrified to see England ranked 10th of the major nations in scrum success, and the return of the wily Cole is the first step towards fixing what has traditionally been a strength of the English game.

England’s Owen Farrell (C-R) is tackled by New Zealand’s Aaron Smith (C-L) during the Autumn International Rugby Union match between England and New Zealand in London, Britain, 19 November 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Andy Rain)


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Farrell stays at centre 

Captain Owen Farrell and Marchant will fill England’s midfield with Marcus Smith at flyhalf against Scotland on Saturday, as Manu Tuilagi was omitted from the matchday squad. 

When fit, Tuilagi has been one of the first names on the team sheet since his debut in 2011, but he has struggled to show his usual impact at Sale this season, opening the door for the return of Marchant.

The centre is due to leave Harlequins to join Stade Francais next season and so will not be eligible for England after the World Cup, but new coach Borthwick’s hand was forced somewhat by injuries to Henry Slade, Elliot Daly and Dan Kelly.

The only time Smith, Farrell and Marchant have played together for England was in the 30-28 defeat to Australia in the first of a three-test series in Perth in July 2022 – after which Marchant was dropped and subsequently overlooked by former coach Eddie Jones.

Malins, another player recalled by Borthwick after being discarded by Jones despite topping the Premiership try-scoring charts last season, starts on the right wing. 

London Irish’s Ollie Hassell-Collins will make his international debut on the left. Freddie Steward is at fullback, with Jack van Poortvliet starting at scrumhalf ahead of Leicester teammate Ben Youngs. 

In the back row, Ben Curry will make his first England start; after a replacement appearance in 2021, Lewis Ludlam will play at number six, with Alex Dombrandt at number Eight.

Ollie Chessum will partner Maro Itoje at lock, with Nick Isiekwe on the bench. Cole is also on the bench.

Harlequins hooker Jack Walker is set for a debut off the bench after Jamie George came through his return-to-play concussion protocols to start.

Anthony Watson, who has had a wretched time with injuries and last played for England in the 2021 Six Nations, is also among the replacements, along with in-form centre Ollie Lawrence.

England have lost three and drawn one of the last five Calcutta Cup meetings against their oldest rivals, but are strong favourites to get their campaign off to a winning start at Twickenham.

Richie Gray of Scotland catches the ball during the RBS Six Nations match between England and Scotland at Twickenham Stadium on 11 March 2017 in London, England. (Photo: Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images)

Scotland take heart

Scotland take confidence and heart into Saturday’s opening Nations clash against England after dominating the fixture against their old rivals over the last five years, said veteran forward Richie Gray. 

Scotland have won three, drawn one and lost one of their last five tests against England, including a 38-38 draw at Twickenham in 2019, and then a narrow 11-6 win there two years later during the pandemic.

“We won there in 2021 in very different circumstances, obviously with no crowd, but we do take belief from that and the fact the recent results against England have been favourable,” said the 33-year-old lock, who also played for the British & Irish Lions. 

“But we are under no illusions of how difficult the challenge will be. England are under new management so they’ll have a point to prove and we expect they’ll come out guns blazing.”

Gray said the absence of the likes of Courtney Lawes, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Tom Curry would be overcome by the depth in the English game. 

“We expect a traditional English approach with a pack who want to take you on up front, so we are aware that it will certainly be a challenge,” Gray said.

“It will also be a challenge to see how we deal with the pressure with 80,000 supporting their side at Twickenham, but I certainly believe we can.” 

Gray and teammates have been preparing on the Spanish coast with a full squad available for selection, with coach Gregor Townsend to name his team on Thursday. 

“I believe we’ve got a good group. We’ve worked hard with quality players, and I believe that we can do well in this championship. I know it’s an old cliché, but we really do need to go one game at a time. 

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Gray added. DM/Reuters

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