‘Incredible sympathy’ for Wales but Steve Borthwick’s focus is on England

Steve Borthwick sympathises with the plight of Wales’ players in their dispute with the Welsh Rugby Union while plotting their downfall in Cardiff on Saturday.

England have made one change to their starting XV for the Guinness Six Nations clash, with Anthony Watson replacing knee injury victim Ollie Hassell-Collins on the left wing.

There are two adjustments to the bench, where Courtney Lawes makes a first appearance since leading the July tour to Australia having recovered from concussion, neck, glute and calf issues, while Ben Curry also returns in anticipation of his second cap.

England’s quest for a maiden away win under Borthwick and first victory at the Principality Stadium since 2017 was in danger of not taking place because of the threat of Wales’ players going on strike.

A contract dispute with the WRU was only settled on Wednesday evening and Borthwick echoes the view given by captain Owen Farrell earlier in the week in empathising with the challenge faced by Warren Gatland’s squad.

“Myself and everybody with the England team, we have incredible sympathy for what the Welsh players have gone through,” Borthwick said.

“No player, no professional athlete, should have to deal with that level of uncertainty and anxiety. We really sympathise with them.

Steve Borthwick is plotting his first away win as England head coach
Steve Borthwick is plotting his first away win as England head coach (Adam Davy/PA)

“From our point of view, we’ve focused on the game and being the best prepared team we possibly can be. Other stuff we can’t control, so we just concentrate on what we can do.

“To be part of a fixture like this, it’s terrific. We embrace it and we can’t wait to get down to Cardiff. There has been a buzz around training all week.”

Watson’s presence in the number 11 jersey is an important moment for the gifted 28-year-old, who celebrates his first start for England in almost two years.

A serious knee injury laid waste to most of the 2021-22 season and having joined Leicester over the summer, he has been limited to 11 appearances because of subsequent niggles.

But the dynamic Lions back now gets to add to the replacement appearance he made against Scotland three weeks ago.

“I was fortunate to be part of the coaching team here a few years ago when Anthony was playing so well,” said Borthwick, Eddie Jones’ former number two.

“He continued in the England team and then had a couple of setbacks. Then I signed him for Leicester and from the day we walked in he was magnificent.

“His professionalism, the way he prepared himself, the way he helped the younger players, how much he cares as a professional.

“He adds to the mix in those outside backs (positions) where we are starting to build competition for places and depth.”

Lawes, alongside Ellis Genge one of England’s two vice-captains, adds 96 caps of experience to the bench as second- and back-row cover and is joined by Curry, who profits from his twin brother Tom’s hamstring problem.

“Courtney has worked really hard to come back from injury, potentially sooner than many people forecast. He has been so incredibly diligent,” Borthwick said.

“Again, it adds to the competitive nature of the squad. We want a competitive squad so that we have depth in each position.”