According to Steve Borthwick, English rugby has made a positive change, but is this truly the case?
When Steve Borthwick stated that English rugby had made significant progress, people took notice. However, his statement was not as extreme as Bill Sweeney’s during the World Cup, when he claimed that “we are on the verge of something extraordinary.” Nevertheless, it still seemed to be a biased view of the current state of the sport.
The suggestion was made that the exodus of England internationals to France is decreasing due to Jamie George, the new captain of Saracens, committing to the team. The speaker went on to explain that English rugby has made progress in recent years, evident in the attendance and atmosphere at games, as well as their competitiveness in Europe. The Premiership also has a high level of competition with around eight teams capable of making it to the top four, making every game crucial. This mirrors the intensity of Test level matches where players must perform at their best every game. The speaker emphasized the importance of this.
So far, he has chosen players who have performed well in domestic matches for his team in the Six Nations tournament. This is a major contrast from the squads of the previous coach, Eddie Jones, as there are no players who can argue that they were unfairly excluded. However, there are still doubts surrounding his decision.
To begin with, the upcoming departure of Owen Farrell to Racing 92 and the prolonged process of it remains a cause for concern. George is a suitable pick as captain and even though Ellis Genge’s hamstring injury may have influenced the decision, Borthwick has once again demonstrated his ability to adapt by selecting the highly regarded Saracens hooker instead of one of his World Cup vice-captains. Crucially, George is someone who resonates with the English public, making it a shrewd choice, although not one that brings a fresh perspective.
Although there are several fresh players in the England team, Borthwick had to make changes due to a group of players retiring and others moving to France. The success of the overhaul will ultimately be assessed based on the team he chooses. When looking at his squad, he has the option to field a starting lineup with many new players or one with more familiar faces. It appears he is being cautious for the time being, not fully committing to a new direction, and choosing George as captain reflects that.
He is a desirable option for the Rugby Football Union as he is among the few players who have been given an improved contract for the upcoming season. Borthwick has been authorized to offer these contracts to players whose contracts expire at the end of the season – Maro Itoje is expected to be the next recipient. However, there is still ambiguity surrounding the specifics of these contracts, aside from providing players with approximately £150,000 per season.
Saracens recently announced that George has been offered a better contract, but Mark McCall, the director of rugby, was unable to provide further details when asked. He suggested asking higher authorities for clarification. This sentiment seems to be shared throughout the Premiership, as Alex Sanderson of Sale also stated that there is no clarity and the situation is connected to the Professional Game Partnership. The process has not been agreed upon by Prem Rugby, the RPA, or the RFU, so it remains uncertain.
The fact that the details of the new Professional Game Partnership are still unknown does not bode well for the future of English rugby. Players such as George, Genge, Marler, Watson, and Itoje have taken control of their own negotiations for future contracts and commercial rights, shifting away from the Rugby Players’ Association. The Association recently announced a successful battle for compensation for its members from Worcester, Wasps, and London Irish. However, with the recent struggles still fresh in everyone’s minds, it is difficult to move forward.
It is evident that the RFU prefers the new England captain to be someone who has been convinced to remain in the country. It has been reported that George was considering a move to the Top 14 but now appears to be staying. However, Farrell is likely leaving and Arundell declined a better contract offer to stay at Racing. It is also expected that Sinckler and Vunipola will relocate abroad after the current season. This shows that the continuous flow of players leaving for other countries is still ongoing.
Sinckler and Vunipola have been excluded from Borthwick’s team. Joe Heyes from Leicester and Alex Dombrandt from Harlequins have taken their spots, but it is the large number of Northampton players, as well as those from Bath and Exeter, that stand out. When Borthwick speaks about his optimistic view based on what he has seen in the Premiership, these are the clubs he is referring to. Harlequins make up the final team in the top four. All four teams have also secured a spot in the Champions Cup knockout stages with a round remaining, which bodes well for their performance in the Six Nations although it is not a definite indicator.
– Many theories have been put forth to explain why Premiership clubs are excelling in the Champions Cup. Some suggest that the departure of three clubs has led to a concentration of talent in fewer teams, while others point to the format of the tournament, which allows four out of six teams in each pool to advance to the knockout stages. Additionally, it seems that the underperformance of French teams in the World Cup has also had an effect on their performance in the club competition, with Toulouse being the only stand-out exception.
Despite the possible reasons, it is not impossible for the Premiership to have seven teams in the last 16, with Saracens, Leicester, and Sale all facing crucial matches this weekend. These three games, against a unpredictable Lyon team and the previous two finalists Leinster and La Rochelle, may truly determine if this season marks a resurgence for the Premiership. While Northampton, Bath, Exeter, and Harlequins have impressed, it is probable that Saracens, Leicester, and Sale will make up the core of Borthwick’s starting lineup, making this an important weekend for England as well.