Steve Borthwick's Six Nations might not be measured by England's results alone
This started out as a piece to consider what would represent success for Steve Borthwick during this season’s Guinness Six Nations Championship, but the conclusion was not as I expected.
International rugby tends to be similar to Premier League football in terms of a ‘new coach bounce’ syndrome, with a failing team that has lost its way and shorn of confidence benefiting from an immediate uplift in results under new leadership.
The previous two World Cups provide the most startling examples, with Michael Cheika reversing Australia’s nosedive in 2014, guiding the Wallabies to the World Cup final against New Zealand at Twickenham in less than a year.
Four years later it was South Africa who made a storming revival under Rassie Erasmus under a similarly rapid elevation, bulldozing their way to their World Cup triumph and swatting aside England in the final after four years of preparation at eye-watering expense under former head coach Eddie Jones.
Which brings us to Jones’s successor. Borthwick has even less time than Cheika and Erasmus before him, given the Rugby Football Union’s last-gasp decision to end the Australian's contract in December at the end of a humiliating autumn campaign. It leaves Borthwick just five competitive matches before the start of the World Cup in France to put his own stamp on the side.
Yet should England supporters still expect a similar bounce in the team’s fortunes when they open their Six Nations campaign against Scotland at Twickenham on Saturday?
Despite making all the right noises since his appointment last month, the sheer size of the task that lies ahead of Borthwick suggests that the measure of success over the next two months may not be measured solely in results.
That is not a luxury afforded to international head coaches, but England supporters would be wise to approach the next five games with a sense of realism.
With Jones now back in charge of Australia, the players have finally found their voices, in private at least, and the feedback of the final days of his tenure suggest the squad were in a more desperate place than previously imagined.
A lack of clarity over the game plan is probably the most alarming of the feedback, but what is also clear from the performance in the defeat by the Springboks in November is that England had also lost their physical edge.
Having hastily assembled a new-look coaching team, Borthwick has worked night and day on planning and preparation and is thought to have had more of a hands-on coaching approach than expected – his line-out stand, a trademark of his previous incarnation as Jones’s forward coach between 2016-19, for example, has been back in use.
And yet as he attempts the rebuilding process, he has been hit by a succession of injuries to key players denuding the pack in particular of the experience and firepower of senior professionals like Luke Cowan-Dickie, Courtney Lawes and Tom Curry.
The flaws of the current professional game agreement have also been exaggerated by the collapse of Wasps and Worcester. Jack Willis, if he was still at Wasps would certainly have been a starter in the back row to face Scotland.
And yet, having been encouraged to go to France to gain experience, Willis is effectively unavailable having played for Toulouse against Montpellier on Sunday night. Unless an English club is able to find room for him in their salary cap next season – which seems unlikely – he could be lost to the England team for another two years unless the overseas selection ban is relaxed.
Currently, England’s talent depth charts for the senior men’s side are also frightening light in the front five, as well as inside centre, where hopes for too long have been pinned on the fitness of Manu Tuilagi.
England, despite the £200 million spent on the professional game agreement, also only have access to 25 players during a normal Test week, not enough for 15 v 15 training sessions – a situation that does not affect Borthwick’s Ireland counterpart Andy Farrell for example. Clubs have generously allowed the national team to retain 29 players this week, but it's not expected to be a regular luxury afforded to the head coach.
The consequence is that Borthwick is attempting to effect change with one hand tied behind his back and makes the prospect of an immediate lift in England’s fortunes a greater challenge.
None of this is Borthwick’s fault, which is why success for his England side in this season’s championship is likely to be viewed through the filter of achieving tangible gains, even if it is not yet necessarily reflected in results.
Borthwick will want to bring clarity to his players, an understanding of the game plan, even if it is limited in the early stages. There has been an emphasis on the set piece and the ability to force penalties, particularly in England’s half. England desperately need to bring speed to their game, not just out wide, but at the breakdown, particularly in their own half. Borthwick has already spoken about his desire to bring the ‘fight’ back to the side, in its most pure sense and reconnect with the Twickenham faithful.
If he achieves those initial targets, the Six Nations there at least will be a measure of success. But for the England supporters who rightly yearn from results, there is still a sense of optimism.
With a World Cup training camp to come, four warm-up games and a pool that England should easily qualify from, Borthwick has time to make significant changes by the time of the knock-out stages. His focus should be on getting everything right for a quarter-final in Marseille, potentially against Jones’s Australia side.
Borthwick will remember what England achieved there in 2007 on their way to the World Cup final in Paris. So, the new coach syndrome may be a slow burner, but 2023 could yet still be remembered as a success.