Robert Kitson emphasizes the importance of gradual change rather than sudden upheaval as the Six Nations tournament approaches.
Unfortunately, it appears that none of the players in Steve Borthwick’s Six Nations team have any intention of switching to American football in the near future. However, Borthwick’s new England squad, referred to as the “patriots” with a small “p”, still managed to create some interesting headlines. With a new captain, Jamie George, and a group of uncapped players such as Manny Feyi-Waboso, Chandler Cunningham-South, and Ethan Roots, there is a level of excitement and curiosity surrounding the team’s performance on Twickenham’s cold field.
Out of the 17 remaining players from the Rugby World Cup, the most noticeable absence is a long list of players. This includes Owen Farrell, Courtney Lawes, Jonny May, Ben Youngs, the Vunipola brothers, Kyle Sinckler, as well as the recovering Manu Tuilagi and Tom Curry. This results in a significant number of missing caps. Additionally, with a few other players based in France such as Henry Arundell, Jack Willis, David Ribbans, and Sam Simmonds, Borthwick has had to fill numerous gaps in the team.
It was expected that there would be a shift in leadership after the RWC, but the management team has also been cautious not to make drastic changes. For every new player like Feyi-Waboso, Chandler-South, or Roots, there are experienced players like Dan Cole, Joe Marler, and Danny Care to maintain balance. Borthwick has emphasized the idea of gradual progress rather than sudden transformation, and has followed through with his plans.
In fact, Sinckler (heading for France, it appears), Billy Vunipola, Jack Walker and Max Malins are the only fit and available World Cup players not involved, slightly diluting any sense of a brave new world. Even Tuilagi is scheduled to be back from the championship’s midpoint, while Curry, George Martin and Bevan Rodd would all have featured had they not been sidelined. Mix in the return of Henry Slade, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Alex Dombrandt and Ben Spencer and a total reboot this is not.
The main unknown factor is how Borthwick will utilize his selected players and if any of the new additions will actually get to play. It is noteworthy that Fraser Dingwall has been included in 10 England squads since 2020, but has not yet earned a cap. If the 24-year-old player from Northampton does not receive one this time, he may consider representing Scotland, for which he is also eligible.
Out of the seven new players on Borthwick’s team, how many are likely to play before mid-March? It may take some time for Harlequins’ Oscar Beard and Cunningham-South, who used to play for London Irish, to get their chance. However, the other five may have the opportunity to play depending on the situation.
One of two players, either Exeter’s Feyi-Waboso or Sale’s Tom Roebuck, may be selected for a spot on the bench for the opening weekend match against Italy. The industrious Roots, another rising star from Exeter, could potentially start as the blindside flanker since Lawes, Curry, Martin, and Willis will not be available.
It will be just as intriguing to witness how many of Northampton’s impressive backs will be considered for selection. Borthwick recognizes that England’s offensive strategy must reach a higher level, and the combination of Alex Mitchell, Fin Smith, Dingwall, and the returning Tommy Freeman and George Furbank provide a crucial sense of unity that is crucial at the top level.
A lot also relies on everyone staying injury-free during the last weekend of Champions Cup games. However, if George Ford, who has been struggling lately, is not performing at his best during the upcoming training camp in Girona, England’s backline may undergo some changes.
If Marcus Smith returns to the 10 position (with Fin Smith on the bench), Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade will play at 12 and 13, respectively. Freeman and Elliot Daly will be on the wings, with either Freddie Steward or the in-form George Furbank at full-back. And with Feyi‑Waboso on the bench, there will be plenty of skill, pace, and left-footed kicking options available.
The pack, assuming Marler and Ellis Genge recover from their injuries, looks likely to be rather more settled with Maro Itoje and Ollie Chessum in the second row and Ben Earl and Sam Underhill probably inked into the back three. The 24-year-old Roots, who was born in Auckland and was playing in Wales for Ospreys last season, is in a battle with Alex Coles and possibly Nick Isiekwe for the No 6 jersey, having caught the eye of both Borthwick and England’s former World Cup-winning flanker Richard Hill, now the national team manager.
Whether there is sufficient power to steamroller either France or Ireland in March is another matter but at least England have an upbeat, popular new leader. George might not have been first choice with everybody else fit but he is a perfect man for this type of situation: close enough to Farrell to feel like a continuity candidate, enough of his own man to offer something slightly different.
Borthwick did not explicitly guarantee the amicable Saracen a role until 2027, but like with Lawes before, George has a talent for putting those around him at ease. While it would have been enjoyable to have the powerful Alfie Barbeary on the team, England does not want to push things too quickly.
The match against Italy is just three full training sessions away, but as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day.