It is unacceptable for Steve Borthwick to be presented with unfit England players

Steve Borthwick: My players need to be fitter - but now I have no control of them - PA/Adam Davy
Steve Borthwick: My players need to be fitter - but now I have no control of them - PA/Adam Davy

Steve Borthwick has warned that England’s players are not yet fit enough to compete at the World Cup but admits he does not have the power to address the problem before the squad reassembles for the pre-tournament camp this summer.

Ireland’s 29-16 victory over Borthwick’s side underscored their status as one of the World Cup favourites, with Andy Farrell’s side completing a fourth Grand Slam, and illustrated the amount of work England need to do.

Borthwick will attend a coaches’ conference over the next couple of days before conducting a full review of their Six Nations campaign – which yielded only two wins for the third successive year – on Wednesday.

And top of his list of priorities is to improve the conditioning of his players, insisting that while it improved during the course of the championship, ultimately cost them dearly.

“If you reflect on the Scotland game, which is the first one we played, and the last 20 minutes, you saw the drop off which is where Scotland then beat us,” said Borthwick.

“We have to make sure we get the condition of the players right and allow the players to come into camp in a really good condition so we can push on. We don’t want to spend the World Cup camp trying to get fit. We want to use the World Cup camp to get better.

“Once the players leave on Sunday and return to their clubs, we have no control over them. We will have conversations with the players and with their clubs so we can give what we would like but ultimately we don’t have any control over that.” –

“We will go through the whole Six Nations and what the key lessons are as a debrief and then next week I will be communicating with the DoRs [directors of rugby], head coaches and players. We have got to learn faster than anyone else.”

The RFU and Premiership club are set to open negotiations over a new professional game agreement next year including the release of players to national camp and Borthwick insists the current set-up has to change if England are to become a world force again.

“Conor O’Shea is working as the performance director and they are in early negotiations over the new PGA. Hopefully working together, Conor with the clubs, the RFU with the clubs and PRL, we will be able to develop a system that enables the club game to thrive and the international team to thrive.

"That is what we all want, we want a really competitive, vibrant Premiership rugby that produces the best possible players in a condition ready for Test rugby to be able to compete at the top of Test rugby. Because that is where we want to be. We don’t want multiple Six Nations with only a couple of wins. We want to be at the top of the championship.”

Clubs and country must get on same page to get England fit for World Cup

Of all the details of Steve Borthwick’s review of England’s Six Nations campaign, arguably the most damning will be the conclusion that he would not have employed the same game plan in the opening round defeat by Scotland had he known about the level of fitness of his players.

Borthwick had already begun drafting his review before Saturday’s 29-16 defeat by Ireland, which secured a historic fourth Grand Slam for Andy Farrell’s side and condemned England to a third successive championship of just two wins from five.

And one thing is certain is that it will be far more excoriating that the Rugby Football Union’s assessment at the end of last year’s campaign that they had been ‘encouraged by the solid progress’ in what proved to be Eddie Jones’ last in charge.

Given the hospital pass of Borthwick's 11th hour appointment in the World Cup cycle, this Six Nations was always going to be a baseline holding operation for England.

And, on a positive note, there was enough in the performance against Ireland to suggest that some progress has been made and some optimism, however seemingly fanciful, to be had going into the World Cup in France.

Forget the controversy and impact of Freddie Steward’s red card and the costly indiscipline of Jack Willis’ yellow card, there were moments when we got a glimpse of how a Borthwick side will play – direct, menacing and with tempo.

Word from inside the camp suggests that Owen Farrell was back to his commanding self last week, a reaction to the trauma of the mauling by France. Initial feedback is that the team were able to stick more rigidly to the game plan compared to the French defeat, when it fell apart alarmingly.

There were obvious improvements to the set-piece too, bringing back memories of England’s dominance there against Ireland at Twickenham despite the red card to Charlie Ewels.

Steve Borthwick: My players need to be fitter - but now I have no control of them - Getty Images/Dan Mullan
Steve Borthwick: My players need to be fitter - but now I have no control of them - Getty Images/Dan Mullan

On the hour mark, despite being undone by a rash of penalties, England remained in the hunt, only trailing 10-9, and had been able to force Ireland into making uncharacteristic errors, with the pressure of the occasion no doubt adding to the handling errors.

Ireland still had the class, wherewithal and pragmatism to ultimately ease to a comfortable victory, underscoring their status as the best side in the world.

But if England’s ability to stay in the fight for longer was a baby step forward, there can be no shying away from the fact that at this level, the players do not have the necessary conditioning to maintain their intensity for 80 minutes, particularly when the opposition are able to up the tempo, as Scotland did at Twickenham in the final quarter.

Given the resources available to both club and country, that is just not acceptable.

There is also much work to be done on expanding England’s so far limited attacking game under Borthwick. But that is the area, he insists, requires the most time.

Borthwick as a player still remembers the pain of England’s 36-0 defeat by South Africa in the pool stages of the 2007 World Cup, having started the game on the bench.

The following day the England squad held an emergency meeting, laying down some home truths to head coach Brian Ashton and his coaching team to establish greater clarity of thought and ambition. England reached the World Cup final, and came within an inch (or Mark Cueto’s toe) of becoming the first side to win back-to-back titles.

Right now England are facing a similar sliding-doors moment. Borthwick at least has more time than his predecessor Ashton.

But when he makes his presentation to the RFU board later this month about what is needed to improve the alignment between club and country and the preparation and development of players for Test rugby, they would do well to listen.

A similar finale to 2007 may yet be in England’s grasp

If it may be impossible to replicate Ireland’s centrally controlled system because of the fact the Premiership clubs are privately owned, France have demonstrated what is possible despite similar constraints.

At a time when rugby union is facing so many off-field challenges, both the clubs and the RFU should recognise that both parties will benefit from putting together an interim arrangement ahead of the new professional game agreement due next year to improve the chance of success for the national side, starting with an agreed conditioning programme for the players while they are back with their clubs.

“I have told the players, we have got to learn faster than anybody else,” said Borthwick. “We have to make sure we learn from this defeat to make sure we get better. We want to make sure we have a team that can compete at the World Cup.

“This debrief I want to go through now of the tournament is going to be integral to us going forward. What we've learned about all the players, we've learned about working with each other, what works, what doesn't work. What are the biggest areas of growth in us. Those are the things we're going to have to look at now.”

With a fair wind, there is still time for structures to be put in place. England have the benefit of a kind draw in the World Cup. If the winner seems likely to come from Ireland’s side of the draw, which includes France and New Zealand, a similar finale to 2007 may yet be in England’s grasp.