Advertisement

Steve Borthwick’s England team announcement straight out of Rassie Erasmus playbook

England head coach Steve Borthwick during training
Steve Borthwick has thrown a curveball at the start of England's summer tour - Reuters/Peter Cziborra

Forget any notion of experimentation on this tour. Steve Borthwick is out to beat Eddie Jones to build impetus for the All Blacks. That much is clear from his selection for Saturday, which is bold in two different ways.

First, and perhaps just as significant as the names on the team sheet, is the manner in which this news has been delivered; two days before it was expected to come.

We associate these early announcements with Warren Gatland and Rassie Erasmus; a pair of wily operators who relish seizing the narrative as they flex and present the question: ‘This is what is coming, now can you deal with it?’.

England were originally slated to unveil their side on Thursday. Instead, Borthwick brought that forward 48 hours. Such a move puts him on the front foot, nullifies the possibility of any leaks to the press, mitigates distractions and, perhaps, just surprises the Japan camp a touch.

Jones, no doubt, will have been hoping to lob an early grenade this week in a bid to unsettle Borthwick. That will now be more difficult. One can imagine Jones grinning and nodding in respect at this pre-emptive strike from his old colleague.

Second, the content. Borthwick has his whole touring party available, and yet has only made four personnel changes to the side that started England’s final Six Nations assignment in Lyon. Chandler Cunningham-South replaces the injured Ollie Chessum at blindside flanker with Bevan Rodd, a mobile and skilful footballer, preferred at loosehead prop.

Bevan Rodd during an England Training session at Pennyhill Park on June 04, 2024 in Bagshot, England
Bevan Rodd is given the chance to stake his claim at loosehead prop - Getty Images/Steve Bardens

In the backline, Marcus Smith takes over the tiller from George Ford as Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, who would have started that France game had he not reported concussion symptoms, coming in for Elliot Daly. Tommy Freeman reverts to the left wing from the right, from which Feyi-Waboso will roam.

Continuity breeds cohesion and England obviously feel as though they are on a roll. Aled Walters will have been trusted to have Premiership finalists ready for the exhausting conditions that a Test match in Tokyo will bring.

Beyond the front-row replacements, which are the same as that France game, there are a few intriguing tweaks. Charlie Ewels is rewarded for a fine campaign with Bath and adds line-out nous. Tom Curry, a coiled spring, is back and hoping to bang. Harry Randall, exceptional as the conductor of free-running Bristol Bears, will win a first cap since 2022.

Immanuel Feyi-Waboso passes the ball during the England training session held at Pennyhill Park on May 28, 2024 in Bagshot, England
Immanuel Feyi-Waboso will be a roaming threat for England - David Rogers/Getty Images

Fin Smith begins the trip as the understudy of Marcus, with Tom Roebuck, the strapping Sale Sharks try-scorer, England’s only potential debutant. The versatility of other backs – George Furbank, Henry Slade, Marcus Smith and Freeman can all shirt around – allows Borthwick to field a specialist wing, rather than a Swiss army knife, in the number 23 shirt. Roebuck was part of the training squad for the Six Nations, and has evidently remained above Ollie Sleightholme in the pecking order.

On what is sure to be a fast, energy-sapping afternoon, speed and mobility will be crucial. The selections of Rodd and Randall underline as much, though the 23 as a whole is well balanced.

For England, pushing on from the Six Nations would mean an intrepid attacking performance allied to destructive moments of defence as a polished set piece and an accurate kicking game stifle their opponents.

That the opponents are led by Jones will make that more important to Borthwick. This early announcement stokes the subplot nicely.