Dreams and regrets fuel Steve Borthwick’s coaching philosophy

Careers day at Hutton Grammar School in 1995 and the kids are writing down the jobs they want when they leave. “I wrote: ‘I want to be a professional rugby player and I want to play for England’,” recalls Steve Borthwick. “I was expecting this incredibly disapproving reaction, like: ‘You’re not going to be a professional rugby player’ and to the careers advisor’s great credit, she looked at me and said: ‘You want to be a professional rugby player? Well, you’d better learn how to spell ‘professional’ then.’”

The memory makes him laugh. Listening to Borthwick talk you get the sense he still cannot believe how lucky he is to be involved in Test rugby. He describes himself as the little kid who used to sit right up next to the TV screen for Five Nations games, and remembers how the hairs on the back of his neck would stand up when the players sang the national anthems.

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As soon as he was old enough he would be on his own in the gym and set “ridiculous targets” on the rowing machine. He had no idea what he was doing, but would tell himself that if he didn’t make them then he would never play for England.

In 2000, Borthwick made it. Clive Woodward called him up for England’s summer tour of South Africa. Borthwick was 20, skinny for a lock, and only had 18 months of club rugby for Bath behind him, but all the talk was about how hard he worked at his game and that he was a good prospect. He made his debut a year later, against France in the Six Nations. England did not lose many in those days and all the first seven Tests he played in were won.

But he was always on the fringes and in September 2003, Woodward dropped him from the World Cup squad. Borthwick was so hurt he did not even watch the final and England’s triumph.

Borthwick talks with pride about how his England career played out, but also with plenty of regret. By 2007 he was a senior member of the team that fought through to the World Cup final, but he hardly got a start and did not play in any of the knockout round matches. At the end of it, he was left frustrated that he had failed to make an impression on the tournament.

Borthwick got another chance to make his mark when his old teammate Martin Johnson took over as head coach and made him captain, But it was a rickety team, and they were rough years for England. They lost 11 Tests in 20, some horrors among them. Borthwick always said he never read the press, but his friends and family did and the criticism got to him. Especially when his team were described as “brainless” after a 32-6 defeat to New Zealand. Borthwick has a Masters degree and did not appreciate the label. He locked himself away inside his own head. “As captain,” Dylan Hartley remembered: “Steve was dour and uncommunicative.”

Steve Borthwick leads England off after a 42-6 defeat to South Africa.
Steve Borthwick leads England off after a 42-6 defeat to South Africa in 2008 during a period in which they lost 11 of 20 Tests under his captaincy. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Borthwick carried a permanent wound on the bridge of his nose. It seemed to open up and start bleeding in every game he played. According to Hartley the players even gave the injury his nickname. “A scab across the bridge of the nose is still known as a Borthers,” Hartley wrote.

In 2010, Borthwick’s knee went. Lewis Moody took over and led the team to a one-all draw in Australia that summer. And that was it. Courtney Lawes was coming through, and Johnson didn’t just take the captaincy away from Borthwick, he dropped him. Borthwick was on honeymoon when the news came through. Even Johnson knew it was wrong. “I always believe people should get what they deserve,” he said later, “but in Steve’s case, he didn’t.”

Borthwick said that he wanted to fight his way back into the team for the World Cup in 2011 but he never played another Test. All these bad experiences have shaped Borthwick’s approach to coaching. “I was privileged to play 57 times for England, I had the great honour of captaining them 21 times, but I look back on a lot of that time and regret a lot of the things I didn’t do,” he says. “There’s lots I wish I had done differently, lots I want to make sure that these young guys do better.”

It was Eddie Jones who brought Borthwick into coaching. He had headhunted him to be his captain when he took over as director of rugby at Saracens. Jones felt they needed a “talisman” on the pitch and settled on Borthwick. “All the reports suggested that apart from being very intelligent, Steve was loyal and dedicated. His character was said to be exemplary,” Jones wrote. “He was more organised than any rugby player I had ever met.”

Eddie Jones and Steve Borthwick.
‘There is no one better when it comes to details,’ says Eddie Jones who brought Steve Borthwick in as his assistant with Japan and England. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

The Australian was persuaded when Borthwick turned up to their first meeting with a legal pad covered in so many questions that Jones asked: “Aren’t I supposed to be doing the interview here?”

England’s new head coach is famously thorough. Borthwick brought those same qualities to his work as Jones’ assistant coach at Japan and England. “There is no one better than Steve when it comes to the detail of the job,” Jones wrote, “he was hunched over his laptop for hour after hour.”

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Borthwick taught himself Afrikaans just so he could understand the Springboks’ lineout calls when England were on tour. But he still carried some of that old intensity. He could be monosyllabic with the press, who he resented, and like Jones he could be unforgiving of his players.

That changed in 2016, when Borthwick was on the UK Sport Elite Coaches Programme. He was asked if he would want someone to coach his kids the way he did his players. He realised he did not like the answer. “I care deeply about my players,” he says now, “and I want to help them have an incredible experience representing their country.”

You can hear that in the words of the men who played under him, for England and the British & Irish Lions. “Probably the best coach I have worked with,” reckons Hartley; “I couldn’t speak highly enough about him,” says Rory Best; “One of the best forwards coaches I’ve worked under,” wrote Sean O’Brien.

Borthwick is a good man. He has had to come to terms with the idea that as hard as he tried, he never got the best out of himself in Test rugby. You sense he sees the job of coaching England – starting next Saturday against Scotland at Twickenham in the 2023 Six Nations – as a chance to try again, to help this generation of players succeed in ways his never did.