A changing of the guard within the England squad after the World Cup had been expected. Given the presence of four-year cycles in the international rugby zeitgeist, which crescendos up to rugby’s blue riband event, every squad undergoes a natural obsolescence. Steve Borthwick will have been preparing for such.
England’s head coach was already aware of Courtney Lawes’s retirement, that the likes of Ben Youngs, Danny Care and Joe Marler will almost certainly be beyond their international prime by the time of the 2027 tournament in Australia. Borthwick’s blueprint for the next four years – starting with the 2024 Six Nations – will have mitigated for those departures.
One thing for which Borthwick might not have planned, however, was the absence of his captain, announced out of the blue on Wednesday, rocking English rugby. Owen Farrell will miss next year’s Six Nations to prioritise his mental health. The fly-half will continue captaining his club, Saracens, but has announced no date for an international return. There was no mention of retirement in Saracens’ short press release and the suggestion is that the 32-year-old will return to an England shirt at some point in the future; equally, if Farrell were never to feature for his country again, it would not come as a surprise.
The question now is to whom Borthwick turns as replacement captain and fly-half for the Six Nations and perhaps beyond. There is deep, mutual admiration between both Borthwick and Farrell; they are kindred spirits. Cast one’s mind back to Borthwick’s announcement of Farrell as his World Cup captain last June. The head coach painted a bucolic picture, of him and his captain waltzing through wheat fields outside Harpenden, giddy with excitement at the rugby challenge that lay ahead of them in France.
One thing is clear from Borthwick’s prose: the Saracen is going to be incredibly tough to replace. Due, if nothing else, to the deference he receives from the England players and staff.
To whom the captaincy baton passes is intriguing. Lawes’s retirement rules out the Northampton forward; Tom Curry’s injury means that he cannot be considered a contender. The two outstanding candidates, therefore, are Ellis Genge –Farrell’s vice-captain alongside Lawes at the World Cup – and Maro Itoje, the lock who two years ago was heralded as a future England captain by former head coach Eddie Jones. Unless Borthwick wanted to take a gargantuan risk with someone like George Martin, then it would seemingly be a two-horse race.
Regarding that duo, Borthwick is presented with an imbroglio. Itoje, having never captained his country nor permanently his club, would be the more left-field selection. The lock is a natural leader, and one whose actions and body language set the tone for the sides in which he features – and, crucially, he is assured a place in the starting XV.
That is almost the sole drawback to Genge’s case. A mighty player, and skipper of Leicester in their 2022 title-winning side under Borthwick, but it is worth highlighting that the loosehead was omitted from England’s starting XV for their biggest match in four years: the World Cup semi-final against South Africa. Marler started in Genge’s stead and when the Harlequin departed alongside Dan Cole, it all went pear-shaped for England.
There is the argument, too, with Itoje’s Saracens future up in the air, that handing him the England captaincy at the age of 29 might be the one thing that prevents a possible departure to France. That element, however, is surely too scheming for a straight-shooter such as Borthwick. He will pick the player he believes is best for the role and, in that regard, Genge must be the leading contender. Borthwick the coach will back himself to get more out of Genge the player in the long-term. What Genge brings outside of his role as a loosehead – rugged determination and gritty conviction – is what cannot be coached.
At fly-half, the decision is more routine. Unless Fin Smith, Marcus Smith or another from the stable of young, English fly-halves start showing world-class form on a weekly basis, there is no reason to stray from George Ford’s expertise. Smith performed his impact role from the bench with aplomb during the World Cup but nothing that the Harlequin has shown at club level so far this season suggests that his game management, orchestration and passing variety have usurped the levels of Ford. There is an argument that, as playmaker, Ford offers more sophistication than even Farrell – and that the Sale fly-half was underused at the recent World Cup, where his heroics against Argentina led England to a famous 14-player victory.
Genge and Ford are 28 and 30 respectively and, with that pair at the helm – just as they were for the Tigers’ Premiership triumph – Borthwick might have found a double-act to alleviate the loss of Farrell. The head coach cannot replace the irreplaceable, but England would be in safe hands, at least – for the Six Nations and, possibly, beyond.