English rugby’s sunlit uplands were not immediately obvious at Twickenham on Monday lunchtime. It was a grey, cheerless day, hardly the ideal moment to be trumpeting the bright “new age” that the Rugby Football Union’s chief executive, Bill Sweeney, kept referencing. As the rain lashed down and the wind howled across the deserted and damp concourse, it felt almost as if the end of the world was arriving early.
Inside the West Stand, though, an altogether more heartening scene was unfolding. Christmas may still be a few days away but Steve Borthwick sounded like a man who has already taken delivery of the gift he has long wanted. If the timing of the offer to become England’s head coach was slightly unexpected, there was no mistaking Borthwick’s excitement at assuming the role recently vacated by Eddie Jones.
Everything is relative, of course. There are limits to how much any coach – wizard or not – can do inside six-and-a-bit weeks. By the time England play their first Six Nations game against Scotland on 4 February, though, their supporters may be pleasantly surprised by how differently they feel about that prospect and how much more upbeat the team looks.
They may also be looking at Borthwick with renewed interest. Everyone knows the 43-year-old for his work ethic, diligence, analytical brain and serious countenance – but how many have paused to consider the human being within? The former England captain will never be as comfortable beneath the television arc lights as his predecessor, but it is already possible to see why a previously downcast England team might respond positively to his arrival.
The first is his shrewd choice of running mate. Anyone with any knowledge of his new defence coach, Kevin Sinfield, will be instantly respectful of the reshuffled setup. His remarkable rugby league achievements, ultra‑marathon running and charity fundraising indicate someone who is far more than a mere coach. “Kevin is an incredible coach,” Borthwick said. “I think he’s an even better human being.”
Then there is Borthwick’s accurate, unvarnished appraisal of England’s situation. Like everyone else he is convinced they have the potential to be doing much better. All they need is clearer direction. Perhaps deliberately he cited a memory from Clive Woodward’s time as England coach when he himself was a 21-year-old squad newbie. “In every single meeting there were posters on the wall and the one I always referred to was the one that said ‘Brilliant Basics’. First and foremost we have to be brilliant at the basics come that first game in 47 days’ time.”
That clarity is exactly what England are crying out for. As head coach of Leicester, Borthwick has also seen first-hand just how much the frustrations of this autumn stung those Tigers players involved. “The thing that strikes me is how much the players are hurting,” he said.
Initially only limited personnel changes will be possible with only five mid-season tweaks officially permitted in England’s Elite Player Squad but, along with a captain and firmer set-piece foundations, the other priority will be to encourage the team to start enjoying their rugby again. He will attempt to kickstart that process by being “authentic”, to use his own word. To some that may sound a glib soundbite; Borthwick means it, with every fibre of his Cumbrian‑reared being.
Growing up he was a fervent England fan long before he was an international player. “I was the kid jumping up and down in the living room, I was the boy who, when the national anthems were being sung, the hairs on the back of your neck would stand up. I was the guy who at 14 years old said: ‘I want to play for England.’ As a coach what I want to do is produce a team that delivers. I think that’s what Twickenham supporters want.”
These days he and his Australian wife, Beth, have two boys, Hunter and Chase, aged nine and seven respectively. If their names imply a certain go-getting attitude towards life and rugby, Borthwick tells a lovely anecdote about returning to the family home after work a couple of days ago. “Hunter came running towards me carrying a ball in his hand. I thought: ‘He’s going to give me this great big hug, it’s going to be a heartwarming moment.’ Instead he ran straight past me, dived on the floor on the far side of the living room and said: ‘I just scored the winning try, Daddy.’ Brilliant. One problem was I missed out on my hug. The other was he was wearing a Wallabies shirt. His mother’s to blame for that.”
The real moral of the story, though, is his firm belief that rugby can inspire fans of all ages. “It has such power,” Borthwick says. “What I want to do is make sure that this team uses that power to get kids to fall in love with the game, to get supporters roaring. We have a lot of work to do and I think everyone can see that. It’s not going to happen overnight. But I think we’ve got a great group of players and that is really exciting.”
Borthwick has yet to pull on his new tracksuit but already it feels as if the gloom around Twickenham is lifting slightly.