The new England head coach has torn down predecessor Eddie Jones’s set-up, from personnel to tactical planning. In less than seven weeks, he has studied, critiqued, then rewritten England’s playbook, repatriated a host of players summarily exiled under Jones and cast out a few contrived ruses, too.
Jones revelled in renaming England’s replacements “finishers”. Borthwick ditched the description on Thursday, in announcing his first match squad. Replacements are back, along with common sense: round pegs for round holes and an impressive equation of straight shooting, minus any withering undertone.
Spoken by anyone else, Borthwick’s dismissal of the term “finishers” would have been immediately described as a coldly-delivered barb.
“I don’t get too obsessed with things that I don’t think add value,” said Borthwick, when pressed on why he had reverted to replacements.
Had master manipulator Jones proffered such a pronouncement, the wily Australian would absolutely have done so in order to generate a reaction. Borthwick cuts such a matter-of-fact figure, though, that his assessment is at once a total rejection of Jones’s philosophy, but also in no way offensive.
This is precisely the kind of managerial mastery that could mark out Borthwick’s England tenure for success. Borthwick and right-hand man Kevin Sinfield offer their players honesty, clarity, brevity and fierce loyalty. Such consistency was sorely lacking under the talented but unpredictable Jones.
England’s new boss spent his first days in the job studying, annotating then redrafting Jones’s playbooks. Such documents do, it turns out, exist. After canvassing as many players and staff as possible, Borthwick set to work on England’s evolution.
With just 48 days separating his appointment and England’s Six Nations opener, Borthwick had no time to waste. His trademark diligence and drive came straight into play.
Borthwick and Sinfield offer their players honesty, clarity, brevity and fierce loyalty. Such consistency was sorely lacking under Jones
What has also shone through in less than seven weeks at the helm, however, is the laser-focused Cumbrian’s total conviction in his method. Jones famously rejected the Premiership as a Test-match proving ground. The taskmaster coach studiously overlooked Max Malins, Joe Marchant, Ollie Lawrence, Ben Curry and Ben Earl during his England tenure.
The first chance Borthwick has had to pick a Test team, and all those five have made his matchday 23. “I’ll rewind about five weeks to some of the phone calls I had when I started speaking to players,” said Borthwick. “A lot on my list were some who hadn’t had many opportunities recently.
“I watched them and spoke to them on the phone — and you just knew they were so desperate to be in the England shirt. You could hear it down the phone, even before a word was said. You could see it in their body language in the conversations that were face-to-face.
“That is exciting and, for me, it is incredibly rewarding. You know how passionate I am about the England rugby team, and to see players just wanting to be in the shirt so much is fantastic.
“So, players have an opportunity, it’s what they wanted, and now they have to take it. And I absolutely back them to do it, by bringing all their strengths onto the pitch.”
The starkest statistic in Jones’s overlooking of certain players must fall in comparing the Curry twins. Tom Curry is out of action with hamstring trouble, so Borthwick turned to his twin brother, Ben. Where Sale flanker Tom boasts 45 caps, his fellow Sharks back-rower and sibling has just one.
Sale boss Alex Sanderson recently posited that in Tom’s absence, the closest possible replacement is Ben. Borthwick agreed, and now England’s forwards have been getting their heads around packing down alongside the other Curry.
“It’s a really weird experience!” said Maro Itoje of playing with the identical twin. “It’s the first time I’ve met Ben properly.
“I’ve played against him and met him in passing a few times, but I came into camp and he was at the diningtable — and in my head I was thinking, ‘I know you, but I don’t actually know you’.
“He looks exactly like Tom, so my brain was saying, ‘I know this guy’, and he was looking at me like, ‘I don’t know you’. I’ve been impressed with him. He’s subtly different from his brother — a little bit more normal!
“He’s settled in well, they clearly have the same DNA, they’re very similar, high-quality players and I’m looking forward to seeing him go.”
England might be seeing doubles in training then, but on Saturday, finally, everyone can bear witness to Borthwick’s Red Rose vision: a nucleus of players handed a lifeline by their phone-a-friend new boss and a team selected for connection and cohesion. Borthwick is no gambler, but he might just be able to game the system.