Steve Borthwick says English rugby has turned a corner, but has it really? | England rugby union team

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When Steve Borthwick declared this week that English rugby had “turned a corner” the ears pricked up. It was not on a par with Bill Sweeney’s outlandish claim during the World Cup, with Jersey Reds having just become the fourth club in 12 months to go to the wall, that “we are on the cusp of something spectacular” but it struck as an overly Red Rose-tinted assessment of the landscape nonetheless.

The suggestion was that, with his new captain Jamie George committing his future to Saracens, the exodus of England internationals to France is drying up. He went on to elaborate that, “we’ve all had a fair amount of time seeing the way English rugby has gone over a couple of years. We are seeing the attendances and atmospheres in grounds. We are seeing how competitive they are in Europe. You are seeing the nature of Premiership rugby, how many good teams there are now. There are maybe eight teams that can make the top four. That’s important because every game then matters. That’s what happens at Test level. You have to be at your best every game. I think that is important.”

Accordingly he has rewarded domestic form with his chosen group for the Six Nations – perhaps the most significant difference between this squad and those of his predecessor Eddie Jones is that there is no one who can feel particularly hard done by in being overlooked – but there remain many reasons to question his claim.

For starters, the impending departure of Owen Farrell to Racing 92 and the drawn-out nature of it continues to cast a cloud. George is a fine choice as captain and though Ellis Genge’s hamstring injury may have made it an easier decision, Borthwick has again shown himself adaptable in turning to the extremely popular Saracens hooker rather than one of his World Cup vice-captains. George is, crucially, someone who connects with the English public and so it is a savvy choice, albeit one that hardly screams new broom.

And while there are many new faces in the England squad, change was forced upon Borthwick by circumstance with a number of retirees and the aforementioned exodus to France – ultimately the extent of the overhaul will be judged in team selection. Casting the eye over his squad, he could field a starting XV with plenty of new blood or one full of familiar faces. In other words, he seems to be hedging his bets for now, approaching the corner rather than turning it, and George is a choice of captain that mirrors that.

He is also a convenient choice for the Rugby Football Union because he is one of the few players to have been offered an enhanced contract for next season. Borthwick has had licence to offer them to players out of contract at the end of the season – Maro Itoje will soon be confirmed as another – but there remains uncertainty as to how they will work in practical terms beyond guaranteeing players around £150,000 a season.

It was Saracens who made the announcement that George has been offered an enhanced contract but when asked this week to elaborate on its significance, the director of rugby Mark McCall was unable to. “You’re going to have to ask people higher up than me about that.” It is a view reflected around the Premiership. Alex Sanderson of Sale, when asked this week if he had more clarity, said: “None whatsoever, it is tied in with the [Professional Game Partnership]. It’s certainly not a process that has been agreed upon by Prem Rugby, the RPA and or the RFU so at the moment it’s all up in the air.”

Jamie George.
Jamie George is a convenient choice as England’s new captain for the RFU having accepted an enhanced contract. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA

That the most significant aspect of the new Professional Game Partnership remains a mystery hardly speaks to a new chapter for English rugby. The players, led by George, Genge, Joe Marler, Anthony Watson and Itoje have taken matters into their own hands when it comes to negotiating their future and commercial rights and away from the Rugby Players’ Association which this week announced it had successfully fought for compensation for its members from Worcester, Wasps and London Irish. When such a car crash is still so close in the rear-view mirror it is impossible to turn the corner.

Clearly it suits the RFU for the new England captain to be someone successfully persuaded to stay in the country – George is said to have been previously close to agreeing a move to the Top 14 – but Farrell is seemingly on his way, Henry Arundell turned down an enhanced contract to stay at Racing while Kyle Sinckler and Billy Vunipola are expected to move abroad at the end of the season. Evidently the steady stream is not drying up just yet.

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Sinckler and Vunipola have been left out of Borthwick’s squad. In their places are Joe Heyes of Leicester and Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt but it is the raft of seven Northampton players, five from Bath and three from Exeter that catch the eye. When Borthwick points to what he has witnessed in the Premiership as grounds for optimism, it is those clubs that he means. Harlequins complete a quartet that currently make up the top four. They have all also qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions Cup with a round to spare and though by no means an exact science, that augurs well for the Six Nations.

There are various theories as to why Premiership clubs are performing better in the Champions Cup. The loss of three clubs has concentrated talent among fewer squads and that four of the six teams from each pool advance to the knockout stages has allowed coaches to pick and choose when to go full bore. Evidently, with Toulouse being the obvious exception, France’s World Cup disappointment has also impacted on their clubs.

Whatever the reasons, it is far from inconceivable that the Premiership has seven sides in the last 16 with Saracens, Leicester and Sale all staging crunch clashes this weekend. Perhaps those three matches, against a capricious Lyon side and the two finalists of the last two seasons in Leinster and La Rochelle will prove the genuine measure of whether this is a campaign of resurgence for the Premiership. For all that Northampton, Bath, Exeter and Harlequins have caught the eye, it is likely that Saracens, Leicester and Sale will provide the spine of Borthwick’s starting XV so it is a significant weekend for England too.

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